Our Job: Dispel Myths about Homeless Youth

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Every December, we hold a legislative open house in our drop-in center to which we invite Vermont legislators to come and learn about the needs of homeless and at-risk youth. My organization, Spectrum Youth and Family Services, presents our list of legislative priorities for the upcoming session. But the highlight of the evening is always when our young people voice their opinions about what is needed to help them and their peers find housing, jobs, education and a way off the streets.

I will never forget the words a 20-year-old woman spoke four years ago. She was then living in our transitional living program in Burlington, an SRO (single room occupancy).

“I know that when you look at us,” she told the legislators, “you are probably thinking, ‘Oh, these are kids who are just running away for the sake of running away, or rebelling just for the sake of rebelling.’ But the truth is that every kid who comes through these doors has a different story to tell, and most of those stories are quite tragic.”

That young woman, in about 10 seconds, dispelled the first of what Portland, Ore.-based New Avenues for Youth calls the Three Myths about Homeless Youth. All of us who work with these youths need to drive home these points to the public, to policymakers, and to our fellow youth workers:

1. It’s fun to be homeless. There is no fun in being homeless, and the vast majority of young people we see come from backgrounds in which they have experienced (often from birth) things like physical abuse, neglect, abandonment, hunger and sexual abuse. They come from families rife with substance abuse, with alcoholism, with domestic violence and with one or both parents in prison. These youths are not “rebelling for the sake of rebelling,” as this young woman so eloquently said. Most are on the street because they were not provided with the love, guidance, structure and care that are essential to producing a well-balanced, functioning adult in today’s society.

2. Most are runaways. National statistics show that the great majority of runaways in this country return home within a night or two. Among youth served by homeless shelters, runaway reports have been filed on only 8 percent. When people ask me how many homeless youths at our centers have run away from their families, I report that for most of them, their families have more or less dissolved to the point where there was no family left from which they could run.

3. Homeless youth do not want help. We know they do want help, but the greatest barrier we face is a lack of trust. As a co-worker told me nearly three decades ago when I was working with homeless youth in New York City, “These are kids who haven’t had good experiences with adults. Don’t expect them to trust you right off the bat. They are expecting you to let them down, just as the others have. It will take time for them to believe you are any different.”

This turned out to be just as true in suburban New York, Connecticut and Vermont. I have found that most of the youth we work with want to have a normal life. They want an education, to have a career, to work so they are able to support themselves. They may not know the best way to achieve these things, and they often lack the confidence needed to take the necessary steps. But they want what we want.

But that is why scores of programs in this country exist: to try to help homeless and disconnected youths regain the crucial elements for success.

We don’t succeed with them all, but we do succeed with many. In fact, that 20-year-old homeless young woman who was brave enough to speak up to legislators four years ago now works for us. She is one of our best staff members, able to connect in a dynamic way with today’s homeless youth. She is living proof that the myths about homeless teens are just that – myths.