Homelessness Is A Situation, Not An Identity

Man desperate and alone in the dark
Man desperate and alone in the dark

Recently, while speaking with Justine and Alexis, Justine was exasperated in telling me about a conversation she had just had with a stranger about her situation. As she put it, "I wasn't born homeless. It's not like I'm a different species!"

To me, those two sentences say so much. Youth who experience homelessness are not a different type of person. Homelessness for most youth is not something they were born into. It is a situation. It happens. And most times, this situation was not brought on by the youth themselves. In Alexis' case she was thrown out of home as a teenager when her religiously conservative parents discovered that she was a lesbian.

As Justine put it, she is not a different species. In my experience, most people are unaware of how many homeless youth are in their communities because most homeless youth look just like every other teen or young adult walking down the street. There is a reason for that: they ARE just like every other teen or young adult walking down the street. They are worried about romantic relationships, the newest viral videos, and where is there going to be something fun to do this weekend.

The big difference for homeless youth is that they don't have a stable home to go to at the end of the night. Yes, that distinction is enormous, but it is not as if the thoughts and worries of homeless youth are that different from their housed counterparts. But they live in a reality where everything is more dangerous. Let me put it this way, if a college kid has too much to drink on a Friday night, likely the biggest drama will be that her friends need to hold her hair while she vomits into a toilet. When a homeless youth drinks too much on a Friday night, she could be arrested for public drunkenness and spend the next several days in jail. It is the same foolish adolescent behavior but with very different consequences.

I want to share some of the story of "Justine and Alexis," who I have known for several years now, because their situation does a lot to illustrate what I am trying to get across. Justine and Alexis are not their real names, but as I do not want to aggravate the discrimination they already experience, I have changed their names to protect their identities.

Homelessness has never defined who either of these remarkable young women are.

While they worry about how they are going to eat and where they are going to sleep at night, much of our most recent conversation focused on things that any youth talks about: movies, books, music, and videos on YouTube. These topics, however, were peppered with stories of discrimination from shop owners and people who pass them on the streets. And more upsetting, they tell me stories of being attacked in the middle of the night while they are trying to sleep in their tent.

What many people fail to understand about youth and their experiences with homelessness is that it is journey. It has ups and downs but being on the streets is rarely a permanent state. For Justine and Alexis, they spent almost two years "actively homeless" together. Many nights they would sleep on city buses, riding 90 minute cross-town routes all night to be safe from predators and the elements. And after doing that for a few days, they would stay in an emergency shelter for several nights. Some nights they would sleep out on park benches. If they were very lucky, they would sometimes save up enough money to rent a cheap motel room for the night, get to sleep all through the night and take a shower.

Through the strength of their determination, Justine and Alexis have had a couple of stints of real stability over the past few years. At one time, Justine and Alexis stayed with Alexis' brother for several months. After they both found jobs, they were able to afford their own apartment. Things were good for more than a year. Hard, living paycheck to paycheck, but they were making it work. But then Alexis was issued a ticket for not crossing the street at the light. She could not afford to pay the ticket. The unpaid ticket became a warrant that led to her arrest. Because she spent a few nights in jail, she lost her job. When she lost her job, they lost their apartment. So now they are back on the streets.

We must remember that youth who are out on the streets are not defined by their homelessness nor will they be homeless forever. But they are likely to linger on the streets and fall back into homelessness if we do not do more to help them achieve stability and remain stable. In my last blog "Yes, we can end youth homelessness," I mentioned several organizations that you can support if you want to be a part of the solution. Here I want to stress the importance of local action.

Most agencies that serve homeless youth are small and in desperate need of donations, including money, volunteer hours, food and clothing. I encourage you to do a quick internet search for your local youth shelter or youth drop-in center and give them some time, money or clothes. Every little bit helps!