The Face of Homeless and Runaway Youth

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Just out of rehab with no home to go to, Steve spent two months sleeping in his mother’s Saturn. Star took a recliner and sleeping bags to the front stoop of her home in an effort to keep out armed drug dealers to whom her mother owed money. McKenzie locked himself in the bathroom, took drugs and cut his arms repeatedly after his Jehovah’s Witness mother rejected him because he is gay.

Photographs depicting these young people are mostly bright-colored and vivid, but are enlivened by the hurt – and pride – in the audio snippets of the young people’s own explanations of the circumstances that underlie each one.

Called “HighLow,” the traveling exhibit of photographs was produced by the Vermont Coalition of Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs and illustrates homeless and runaway youth at the highest and lowest moments in their lives. It was recently on display in the Russell Senate Office Building’s rotunda, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Photographer Ned Castle spent months getting to know the youths before he and they selected two situations to recreate – one representing each extreme in their lives. Eleven youths participated in the project.

VCRHYP Director Calvin Smith said the organization started working with Castle three years ago, when he did work for its website. That work spawned an idea to do a story-telling project on youth experiences, particularly those of the homeless and other youth living in distress in the state of Vermont, Smith said.

“From the very beginning, we knew we were going to be treading this balancing act between telling youths’ stories and really empowering them to tell their own stories,” Smith said.

VCRHYP is made up of 13 agencies throughout Vermont that assist homeless and runaway youth. The youth depicted in the “HighLow” project were all served by agencies that make up the coalition.

The original gallery exhibit cost about $30,000 to put together, Smith said, mostly to pay Castle for time and labor and to print and frame the photographs. Last summer, the coalition put an additional $8,000 into a street version of the project, featuring blown-up images of the youths on mural-size posters that were pasted on building walls and other public places in downtown Montpelier, Burlington and Rutland, Vt., he said. The trip to Washington for the exhibit in the Russell building cost another $2,500.

The Vermont Children & Family Council for Prevention Programs made the initial grant for the project, said Smith, “but we also raised a substantial amount of cash from various private donors. We also received some small grants, including one from the City of Montpelier, to help with costs of the street project.”

Many of the youths Castle built relationships with during his visits got involved with the project.  From the start, Castle and VCRHYP made sure the participants knew they could withdraw at any point, and some exercised that option.

Mackenzie Lewis, 20, one of the youth participants, said Castle came to a youth shelter in Burlington, where he was living at the time. Lewis said he and a friend, also a “HighLow” participant, initially did not have an interest in working with Castle.

But then, “we decided that if we weren’t in the project, we’d be really upset with ourselves, because it is such a great opportunity,” Lewis said.

Castle told him it would not be a fast process, and it would take several months for everything to come together. Lewis said he took more than two months to reflect on highs and lows within his life, and shot the two photos and recorded audio with Castle after finalizing the two moments. 

“I just feel so fortunate that I was able to be part of the project with everybody else,” Lewis said. Lewis spoke on his audio piece of the struggles he had coping with his sexuality. He said he felt very unaccepted by people at school and by his mother, who did not accept homosexuality. He became deeply depressed and got involved in self-mutilation and drug use in order to find a way to escape his life.  Lewis recalls waking up in a huge amount of pain one morning after severely hurting himself, taking drugs and cutting his arms. He looked in the mirror and asked himself what he was doing to his life – the moment that is depicted as his low in the project.

This moment was a turning point for Lewis, when he realized that he didn’t need to hurt himself to deal with his pain and acknowledged that one day things would get better, and his relationship with his mother and with others would improve. His high point photograph depicts a feeling of being accepted for who he is and for his homosexuality.

Steve, who slept in his mother’s car, chose as his high the feeling of liberation he experiences when he catches a morning ride on the ski lift where he works. Star’s high is her plan to open a homeless shelter.

The exhibit was first on display in Burlington in early May 2010 but VCRHYP is expanding the initiative nationally. Washington was the first stop on the tour. VCRHYP officials said the exhibit is available to other communities that would like to display it.

“We’re looking for other opportunities to extend it out, because it seems like the stories resonate wherever you live,” Smith said.

To see the exhibit online, go to www.highlowproject.org/fullsite.

Contact: Vermont Coalition of Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs (802) 229-9151, www.vcrhyp.org.