The stigma of homelessness is tough, but not insurmountable
By Thomas Wrede
Editor’s note: For privacy reasons, ThreeSixty Journalism is only using the first name of a teenage source in this story.
You are 19 years old, spending a night in the bathroom of a local McDonald’s with your infant son.
There is nowhere else to go. No friend with an empty couch. No shelter bed. No home.
It’s summer and the streets are hot and bluntly dangerous. You are not only looking out for yourself but your baby boy, as well. The nighttime janitor comes in and tells you to leave. When you explain that you have no other place to go, the kind custodian lets you stay.
You are weary. You are grateful. You are in Shequita’s shoes.
Shequita has worked with SafeZone, a St. Paul drop-in center for homeless youth, since soon after she became homeless more than three years ago. In January—as two-year-old D’Meer jostled in her arms—the now 21-year-old St. Paul woman sat in SafeZone and explained how she became one of an estimated 4,000 Minnesota youth between 14 and 21 who are homeless on an average day. Like her, 29 percent of them have children of their own.
For Shequita, homelessness began when she stopped going to school—which her mother would not allow.
“That was the house rule: If you stopped going to school, you can’t live here,” Shequita said. She got pregnant and moved in with her boyfriend. “And his mom, she was like—she can’t stay here. So that’s how I was living out on the street, meeting people, new friends, staying at their houses. Doing anything to get money to get by.”
NO PLACE TO GO
Young people become homeless for many reasons.
When volunteers from the Wilder Foundation interviewed homeless youth in 2012, three in 10 said they were locked out, told to leave or were fighting with parents or guardians. Another 12 percent said they weren’t willing to live by their parents’ rules.
Many young people ultimately blamed their parents: 12 percent said their parents were using drugs or alcohol or neglected the young person’s basic needs. More than one in 10 said they didn’t feel safe because of violence at home. And 11 percent said their family had lost their housing.
“When we do a full interview, we realize it’s a lot more complex,” said Michelle Gerrard, research manager for the St. Paul foundation, which conducts a statewide survey of homeless people every three years. “It’s usually a combination of youth and parents.”
After D’Meer was born, Shequita and her son lived in a shelter. Then her luck turned: She got a job and apartment with her boyfriend.
But the man was abusive.
“We (were) always fighting. He was always beating me up. I lost my job. I lost my apartment. I got a UD (unlawful detainer). So back on the streets with my son.”
Many young people who become homeless face other problems as well. Six out of 10 have had a parent in prison. Nearly that many spent time in a foster home, group home or facility for young people with emotional or behavioral problems. More than half said they had been neglected or abused physically or sexually as children. Seven out of 10 suffered at least one of the following: Significant mental illness, chronic physical illness, substance abuse or signs of traumatic brain injury.
Wilder’s survey found that homeless youth are disproportionally minorities. Young people of color make up 70 percent of the homeless youth population compared to 24 percent of the overall population of teens and young adults. That’s because people of color are more likely to be poor, unemployed and not doing well in school, Gerrard said. Racism also plays a part, she added.
Remarkably, most homeless teens who are 17 or younger stay in school. Wilder found that 69 percent had attended school the day they were surveyed. The federal McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 requires school districts to provide transportation so that homeless students can go back to their original school even if they are living elsewhere. That access has helped increase the number of homeless students in school, Gerrard said.
“The kids really like to go to school,” she said. “It is a stable place in their lives.”
Shequita returned to Como Park High School after she left home. In fact, she earned her diploma in 2011, a few weeks before D’Meer was born. She kept going because of him.
“If you drop out, you don’t do nothing,” she said. “What’s going to happen when the baby get here? You can’t get no job because you don’t have no diploma.”
But since Shequita was moving around so much, she didn’t pick up her diploma until January 28, the day she was interviewed by ThreeSixty. She took it out of her backpack to proudly show it.
“It ain’t worth having if it ain’t worth working hard for,” Shequita said. She planned to take the bus to her mother’s home that day to show her.
Like Shequita, 58 percent of homeless young adults—ages 18 to 21—have a high school degree or GED. But it’s still hard to get a job and make a living, especially when you’re homeless. When employers are hiring, they prefer people who have reliable transportation and housing, Gerrard said.
For homeless youth, just staying clean can also be a challenge.
“People might look down on you because you smell,” Shequita said. “You smell because it’s been awhile since you had a shower. You feel bad and you think—you don’t know what I been through.”
Through it all, Shequita never lost touch with her mom. Her mother took care of D’Meer when Shequita was working and bought him diapers and other necessities.
“There was never a time she shut the door on my face. I just kind of shoved us onto her,” Shequita said.
But she’s never asked her mother if she and D’Meer could move home.
“I have this little thing called pride,” Shequita said. “If I go home that easily, I’m going to feel like I give up on myself. (Because) I left here intending that you was going to do that, that and that. And now when the going get tough, you feel like you just going to run back home.”
Some parents won’t let their children return, anyway.
“Some teens go out and they’re having fun,” said Scott Hill-Cole, Shequita’s case manager at SafeZone. “But the lifestyle—reality sets in. They think—I had a good time, now I want to go home. And the parents say, you got to continue having that good time because you didn’t obey my rules. Their parents don’t let ‘em come back.”
That worries Gerrard, because the longer one is homeless, the greater the risk that person will be abused. In the Wilder survey, 30 percent of young people stayed in abusive situations because they had no other housing. Seventeen percent had been sexual with someone in exchange for shelter, housing or food.
While there are shelter beds specifically for teens and young adults, there aren’t enough, Gerrard said. Large adult shelters are also chaotic and dangerous for young people.
Gerrard advocates spending more money to help families in crisis and prevent young people from becoming homeless in the first place.
“That time of life is such a transition for everybody,” she said. “You’re getting your foothold for the rest of your life.”
If you lose hope at that point, “it stays with you for a long time.”
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
Michelle Gerrard, research manager for the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, used to be a school counselor. She has come to believe that preventing teens from leaving home in the first place is critical.
“I’m starting to get on the bandwagon for prevention … I’ve been doing this work for 20 years. It’s really depressing that you might see a family in the system and then their child,” she said
What can teens do to help peers? Here’s Gerrard’s advice:
• Reach out to another teen who is having issues at home. Let him/her sleep on your couch for a night if problems are escalating.
• Find someone who can talk to the teen and advise them how to de-escalate the conflict. “Everyone knows someone who can use a friend.”
• Tell couch hoppers about available resources. Sometimes parents also need help. A detailed list of housing resources around Minnesota is available at www.youthmovingforward.org/shelterhousing.
• Volunteer to help clean and organize clothes at drop-in centers and shelters. Or offer to babysit children while their parents get help.
• Advocate for programs that help homeless youth. The Minnesota Legislature is often asked for money to create transitional housing for teens while they save up money to rent their own apartments.
• Advocates for homeless youth support higher wages and other changes in public policy as ways to help teens and families support themselves. For more information, visit www.mnhomelesscoalition.org.
— Daniela Garcia, Edina High School