Monday, July 26, 2010

National Homeless Youth Awareness Month

Moving this to my new home here, originally posted on my blog on 11/25/2009:

So, November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. Did you know that? No? Neither did I, even though I deal with homeless youth all the time and make it my business to know this sort of thing. I read about it last week, and ever since then I’ve been grumbling in the back of my mind about how someone isn’t doing a very good job of making the world “aware”. Then I realized that perhaps that “someone” is, at least in part, myself. It occurred to me that rather than complain, I should do my part and try to spread a little “awareness.” So here goes:

In Maricopa County alone (that's where Phoenix is located and where I live, if you're reading from somewhere else) there are literally hundreds of non-government animal shelters (that means I am not counting the county dog pound); I stopped counting after I passed 200. Now, there is nothing wrong at all with operating or supporting an animal shelter, but just for the sake of perspective, do you know how many non-government beds there are for homeless youth? There are eight. Eight. Digest that for just a minute.

Every night, there are over 1900 homeless youth in Maricopa County. Naturally I am more familiar with the numbers in my own area, but perhaps take a moment and see what you can find out about your city, town, or county. I would bet the statistics are relatively similar.

I read online that in the time frame of October 2006 to September 2007, the number of people in shelters with children at some point within that year was 130,968. Now, those are obviously people who are homeless and keeping their children with them. Just from my own personal experience, I assume that most of those children were smaller, not teenagers. I base that on the fact that – again, from my own experience (not citing any sources or pretending to be an expert here) – the teenaged children of homeless parents are often sent off to fend for themselves. They are considered “old enough”, often by parents who have enough problems of their own and cannot carry the load of being responsible for a teen. Or, they simply take it upon themselves to go out on their own. My parents can’t take care of me, they’re too messed up, I’m better off by myself.

So, I can’t tell you the exact numbers, but I think it’s pretty clear by now that there are a lot of homeless families, and logic would tell us that homeless families lead to homeless youth on the streets. But there are more out there than just those kids who come from homeless parents. There are those who have run away from abuse, neglect, or any number of problems at home. There are those who have parents with alcohol or drug problems, and they find their home life to be unbearable, or to be no better than the streets (sometimes worse). Then, of course, there are those who have been kicked out of their homes by parents who can’t or don’t want to deal with the responsibilities of parenting. The reasons vary as much as people and families vary, but the bottom line is: They’re out there. And they can’t take care of themselves.

You might ask “Why not?” Why can’t they take care of themselves? At least the older ones, anyway. The ones that are, say, sixteen years old and up. They’re often strong and able-bodied, so why can’t they just get a job and, although life hasn’t been fair, move on and become a responsible member of society? Well, I’ll tell you why. Put yourself in the shoes, just for a moment, of a seventeen-year-old runaway who has been abused at home. Let’s just use that scenario as an example, and let’s look at your options…

In order to get a job, you’ve got to have a few things. You need transportation, you need to be clean, you need a phone number to put on job applications, and you need your ID and Social Security card. So, basically, you’ve first got to find a place to stay (so you’ve got that contact phone and a place to shower). Maybe you can crash at a friend’s house, if your friend’s parents are agreeable to that idea. If that happens, you’re one of a lucky few. But if not, there are always shelters to go to, right? Well, not always. If you happen to be able to get to the right part of town, and you’re savvy enough (at age seventeen) to find out where the shelters are, and you’re fortunate enough to find an open bed, then you can stay in the shelter. For the night, that is. No phone number to use, maybe no place to shower. But that’s all irrelevant if you can’t even get in, which is likely. It’s harder than most people think to get into a shelter. If no one opens their home to you and you can’t get into a shelter, then you’ve hit a dead end.

Let’s say, though, that one of the two options above does work out for you, and you have a place to sleep and wash. Now you still have the issue of transportation. You’re going to need money for that, whether you pay someone to drive you around or you take the bus (or whatever public transportation). So, where to come up with money? Well, that’s a good question. Beg, borrow or steal, as they say. But now you’re well on your way to being labeled a “street thug”. If you absolutely cannot come up with bus money, you can always try to find a job within walking distance of the place you’re staying. Good luck with that, but it might happen. Otherwise, another dead end.

But what if you are so fortunate or so smart that you’ve managed to overcome ALL these hurdles so far? What if you’ve even found a job, and they’re ready to hire you? You’re good to go, right? Nope. Now is the time when the issue of that ID and Social Security card comes up. Gotta have those to start your job. Maybe your parents took you to get your driver’s license when you turned sixteen. Probably not, but maybe. In that case, you’re lucky. But if not, you can’t get your ID without your parents being there to sign for it. Oh, and you’re going to need your birth certificate to get the ID, too. You’ll need money and – get this – identification to get your birth certificate. Unless, that is, you can get your parents to hand over their copy of it. If they’re not drunk and if they can find it. And if they’re still speaking to you. And if they care. Odds are: dead end.

I don’t need to walk you through all the similar hoops you’ll have to jump through to get your Social Security card. I’m sure by now you can imagine it’s a similar challenge. No ID, no parents to accompany you and sign for it, no card. Dead end.

And thus, no job. But what were you going to do with that paycheck, anyway? Of course you can buy food and clothes, and that’s obviously helpful, but are you going to carry that food and those clothes around in your backpack and take them to work each day, how ever you’re getting there? Because you certainly are not going to rent an apartment. Not if you’re under age. And you’re not going to check into a cheap motel, either. Nor can you buy a car, open a bank account, or even go to the doctor (parent’s permission is required for treatment). So, even if you overcome all those challenges to get a job, you will still be carrying all your earthly belongings, as well as your food and toiletries, around on your back while you “hoof it”. And you’ll also be carrying all the cash from your paycheck. Good luck not getting robbed, since you have to sleep in the park or under a bridge.

Okay, I’ve gone on long enough. You get the point. The challenges and difficulties of homelessness are brutal enough for anyone, but for the homeless youth, they are even more difficult. Downright impossible, frankly, unless you’re some kind of genius and/or very lucky.

Ah… But you’re thinking I’ve forgotten something, right? Child Protective Services, or the Department of Children and Family Services, or whatever they’re called in your area. That’s who these teens should call, right? Wrong. I can tell you, dear reader, from personal experience, that such a phone call is highly likely to go one of two ways: Either the teenager in question will be labeled a “bad kid” for running away and be prosecuted for it, or the answer will be that they aren’t worth the effort for the agency to get involved, due to their age. See, by the time they put a worker on the case, go through all the paperwork and possible court proceedings and such, the darned kid will just turn around and become an adult, and all of that will have been a “waste of time and resources”. Don’t think this doesn’t happen, either, because I’ve heard it with my own two ears. In the process of trying to help, I have been personally told by CPS case workers that they would not get involved because it was a waste of their time and resources. So, basically, the government agency will (not always, but often) handle the situation either badly or not at all.

Before I end this, let me ask you to once more step back into the shoes of that hypothetical seventeen-year-old on the streets, so I can give you some advice: Be very, very careful in doing whatever you have to do to survive. There is no legal way for you to independently take care of yourself, because after all, you’re just a kid, so you have no real rights to handle your own business. However, if you do anything illegal, you will certainly be treated as an adult. Because, after all… Well, frankly, that one has never made any sense to me. But it’s a whole ‘nother topic for another day.

Anyway, dear reader, thanks for taking the time to read this. Now you are “aware”.

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