The Voices of Homeless Teens Must Be Heard

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The simple act of placing legislators and homeless teens in the same room and allowing them to pick one another’s brain may seem routine, but the results can be extraordinary.

A single meeting often can change policymakers’ perspectives. It might not mean a different vote on funding for a program tomorrow, but in the long run, this kind of meeting will pay off for youth agencies and the kids they serve.

Some legislators may think they learn all about teens by visiting schools, but they won’t hear these voices there. And it’s our job to make certain they are heard.

I last wrote [“Our Job: Dispel Myths about Homeless Youth,” Youth Today, April 2009] about my experience at such a forum, held four years ago. The most recent legislative open house at Spectrum Youth and Family Services was just as remarkable. Held in early December on a night when it was 10 degrees outside, the meeting brought in 10 legislators and about 15 youths, most of them 16 to 21, who live in our various residences in Burlington, Vt.

A legislator started the discussion by asking, “How many of you have ever been literally homeless, staying outside somewhere?” All hands went up. “Where do you sleep when you are homeless?” he asked next. The kids went around the room with their answers:

“In doorways.”

“In the park, on benches.”

“In the woods.”

“In the parking garage.”

Another legislator then asked, “How many of you know a young person who is out there tonight, homeless?” Most of the hands went up again.

A different legislator asked, “If you could turn back the clock 10 years, what choices would you make differently so you didn’t end up in this situation?”

A young woman sparked the replies: “Ten years ago, I was 7. I was living in a crack house. My mother was a crack addict, and my father was a crack addict. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do at that age to change that.”

Then a young man next to her answered, “I was 9, and my parents were alcoholics, but not the type who each drank a martini or two and went quietly to bed. They’d each down a fifth of vodka every night and then beat the hell out of each other, and out of us, the children. So there wasn’t much I could choose to do differently about that.”

Another boy replied, “My parents divorced when I was little, my father obtained custody of me, I lived with him, and when I was 15, I told him I was gay. He threw me out of the house, and I’ve been on my own ever since.”

By this point, many of the legislators looked stunned. One said, “I am leaving this meeting to go to a dialogue night at a nearby high school, and I am not going to hear stories like this.”

The final youth to speak had a different type of story. “I grew up in a nice family, my parents treated me well, but I got involved in drugs and made many bad choices. I am now trying to put my life back together again and make good choices.”

What these youths told the legislators really portrayed the devastating circumstances from which so many homeless youth come. It was news to the legislators, but it was a reminder to me that when you are in the business of trying to help such youth, you are essentially trying to undo decades of damage that was inflicted upon them.

The other thing that struck me was the need, if not the absolute cry from these youth, for structure, boundaries and limits.

“I wish my parents had been smart enough to recognize that I was getting over on them, that I was out at night way too often, that I was burning through my and their money at a crazy rate and that I was involved in drugs,” one said.

“I wish teachers had confronted me on my drug use in school. I was high half the time I was there, doing lines of cocaine right there in the building. They had to know,” said another.

“I know if I had left rehab and gone back to my home community, I’d be stoned right now and doing nothing with my life, but this place Spectrum has given me the structure that I need to succeed,” a youth added.

That confirmed my belief that too many parents in America are trying to be their child’s best friend when their role is to be a parent, which means setting limits and confronting inappropriate behavior. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a coach or a staff member at a youth service organization like ours, we are doing the children of our country no favors at all by failing to provide the structure and order that are so necessary for young people to grow into responsible, caring adults.

We only need to listen to their voices to hear their pleas.

Mark Redmond is executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services, based in Burlington, Vt.