We Must Engage Homeless Youth

Somewhere between today and the future there are a group of young people hanging out at the bus station or in the park. We come from poor, low-income, or middle class homes; we are young men and women; we are generally energetic and mostly optimistic about our lives. As well as being segregated from mainstream society because of our age, we are also alienated for another reason: we are homeless.

When I was 19 I knew that my life needed to change. So, I packed up my car with all my worldly possessions and headed off to New Orleans, Louisiana. About halfway there my car broke down. Rather than give up, I sold my car and everything in it to a junk yard operator for $50, and got a Greyhound ticket. I stayed in N.O. for 3 weeks, and despised every minute of it. After getting beat, sleeping in dumpsters, being turned down for jobs, begging at churches, being turned away from outreach centers, playing harmonica in the French Quarter, and having my bags stolen, I begged my family to pay for a bus ticket home. My older brother obliged, and I eventually got back. That was just three weeks in the “big easy”.

Here in Olympia, homelessness is treated like a disease, a blight upon an otherwise upstanding community. Business leaders routinely blame the ills of their business practices on homeless people; police often run up on homeless youth for no reason. There is a shortage of resources here for the powerful outreach work being done to help homeless youth, and because of that there are an increasing number of teens who seemingly “disappear” as they fade into the abyss of extreme poverty, lifelong homelessness, and in some cases, crime. Olympia is not the exception to the rule.

A lot of people try to trace where these young people are coming from, but I don’t want to get hung up on that. While it is important to identify the sources of this injustice, it is equally important to aggressively struggle to challenge the disparity these youth face. How do we do that?

When I work with youth workers that work with homeless youth, I seek adult allies who will work with homeless youth to engage them in social change. The actions these youth take do not have to address their own situations, either; instead, homeless youth activists can fight for environmental, economic, educational, or other forms of social change. They don’t have to be pigeon-holed. These activities will empower homeless youth with agency; that is, feeling and being able to create change in their own lives. In turn, homeless youth can identify for themselves and with their adult allies the ability to create change in their own lives.

I have learned a lot from the advocates I know here in the Northwest. Here in Olympia there has been an ongoing effort to educate the public and engage homeless youth themselves. My friends at Community Youth Services have been operating a street outreach project for years, from which grew Rosie’s Place a few years ago. Giles and Shawn there have long been advocates throughout the city.

Illustrating the complexity of engaging homeless youth in social change, Rosalinda Noriega created Partners in Prevention Education, or PIPE. PIPE, based in Olympia, focuses on challenging sexual abuse and domestic violence. PIPE has found its greatest success by engaging homeless youth as advocates. PIPE hasn’t been without criticism for its approach to integrating youth in social change. Another project in Olympia illustrates the complexity of these efforts. The Downtowners is a documentary film that was made last year to raise public awareness about the realities homeless youth face everyday. YAYA Media is continuing this effort by actively engaging homeless youth in creating their own media.

All of this is to illustrate the approaches one small city on the West Coast is taking to engage homeless youth throughout their community. While I know that there are vital differences between Olympia and the rest of the nation, particularly large cities, the basis of my contention is the same no matter where you are:

The isolation that all young people face is amplified when youth are without the supports of parents, families, and/or homes. When homeless youth are engaged as advocates throughout their communities, they can develop a sense of belonging, purpose, and identity which can be used to support their ongoing, sustainable development as members of our society. We all deserve that opportunity.

Note: Just like homelessness itself, this work can be dangerous. Read Rooster’s story.

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