My colleague Alison has been the StandUp For Kids Venice Outreach Director for over three years. I didn't know much about this nonprofit until I went on outreach with her when I was deciding whether or not to get involved. We met at the boardwalk and it was in December when the weather was getting cold. Alison pulled two wire carts from her Prius and five huge green garbage bags filled with food packs. We began to walk and looked for street kids hanging in groups on the grass. Watching her talk to them was an education. It wasn't just her British accent that made the kids curious and attentive to her, but it was the combo of the blonde hair and her no bullshit approach that earned her their respect.
Over the months I've come to not only respect these kids for what they've gone through, but to understand that their very existence gave them no choice but to end up on the street. For the most part, they are survivors. They survived abuse living in their homes with parents who were supposed to take care of them but instead neglected them because their drugs were more important or they couldn't control their anger. They have been shuffled from foster home to foster home with people who don't know them and don't care. They were betrayed by the very adult who was supposed to love them -- unconditionally.
When we are on the streets with the other StandUp volunteers we are listeners. We listen to a kid talk about living at home with a crack addict mother, an abusive father, or parents who tell them to get out because they favor their dog over their kid. A number of these kids grow up in the foster system and when they turn 18 they are on their own to fend for themselves. There are no resources for these kids. They have no skills in how to take care of themselves, how to keep a job, or even how to get one. They survive by living with other street kids in order to form street families of their own. They protect each other as best they can or they'll get dogs to do that for them. These kids are in need of an adult connection: one person who will listen and care. One person who will make a connection with them for the first time in their lives since their parents failed them.
This is Shadow's story:
Shadow is 24 years old and he's been on the streets since he was 10. He grew up in Phoenix with crack addict parents who had seven kids. He was the oldest. As he puts it, "My parents were in the living room when I walked out the door. They cared more about their crack than their son."
Living on the streets was frightening, but in certain ways it was safer than living at home. He says, "The streets have taken their toll. You age faster and it wears your body down."
No kid on the street uses his or her real name. Shadow has used his street name so long he's thinking of making it legal. Another street kid joins us. His name is Callie and he's been on the streets for a couple of years. He and Shadow are tight, but Shadow moves around a lot and relationships that form are generally cut short. It's just the way it is.
"I've met thousands of people that I have known through my journey, and it sucks leaving them behind, but that is the life of a traveler. But we look out for each other. We are family."
He says his other siblings were taken by the Child Protective Services after he left. On occasion he used to hear from his brother, but not much anymore. He needs the connection to adults and shows up on the nights that we do outreach at another nonprofit we partner with since we don't have our own outreach center yet. He'll get some sleep and a good meal. He'll exchange his dirty clothes for clean used ones and he'll leave before it gets too late to find a safe place for the night. He knows that every week he will see us and we will ask him how he's doing that day or even that hour. We will listen.
I asked if he could wish for anything what would it be. I thought maybe it would be something we could get for him - a sleeping bag, a warm coat, but he says,
"If could wish for anything it would be to turn back the hands of time. ...I would want healthy parents and a younger me.
"I would try to control what happened."
If we could wish for anything we would wish for the money to open an outreach center for the street kids of LA. We want them to know that there are adults who care about their well-being and will prove it not only with a hot meal, but with the tools to find a job, an apartment, a life. We listen first and advise only after we've gained their trust. Please help us raise the funds to help these kids. With your help we can make a difference.