M. clearly seemed to be a fairly normal young man. He didn’t do drugs or drink. He swore a lot but tried to keep a lid on it when I was around. He was a very emotional person but his emotions always seemed to be appropriate even if they were strongly expressed. So, why had this 19-year old kid become homeless at age 16? How had he survived on his own for three years? Were there issues I didn’t know about? Were there problems I didn’t see? Was he just that good of an actor?
One afternoon, I sat down with M.. I simply asked and he simply told me.
His parents met at a party and spent the evening together. They didn’t see each other again except to navigate child support issues in court. He told me his mother had problems with alcohol, cocaine and gambling. As a result, she had a hard time holding a job, keeping a home, caring for her child. She regularly brought a variety of men home and, as each one swooped in and tried to ‘fix’ her, they moved from place to place, apartment to apartment.
As time went on, the men she started bringing home were not the kind of men who try to fix things. Instead, they were the kind of men who drank, gambled and snorted cocaine with her. And sometimes, these men she brought home weren’t very nice.
He told stories about living for a while in a farmhouse with a rotting, sagging kitchen floor and rats in the pantry. He told about living in a house completely filled with garbage – beer cans, dirty diapers and pizza boxes. He talked about living in a place where they made him sleep on the floor while the dog slept on the couch. He talked about living in a place with so many other people that you couldn’t breathe, where people were tangled up on the floor, on the furniture, intertwined and always sleeping. He talked about living places where there was no food in the entire house except ketchup and butter, where he learned to make spaghetti by mixing the two together and pouring it over ramen. He talked about living in an apartment where he was made to sleep in a pile of blankets in a closet. He talked about living in someone’s home where he was beat and locked out of the home for two days because he ate an apple without permission.
He talked about wandering around town to avoid his mother and her friends. He told about popping into stores, picking a family and wandering behind them for a while, pretending that family was his. He talked about moving from school to school, being labeled stupid because he didn’t, couldn’t do his homework. He talked about being labeled a problem child because he was always angry or always playing jokes, always trying to get people to notice him, to appreciate him, to love him. He talked about the social worker assigned to his case and about how she encouraged him to work harder in school. She didn’t ask much about his home life and he didn’t tell her. She recommended that he start going to TreeHouse. He got some of the attention he was seeking by participating in the small group and one on one counseling sessions. And, TreeHouse met twice a week. That was two more times that he would have away from his house, away from his mother.
He told me about how, at age 16, he was absolutely fed up with everything he was having to endure. He hated watching everything his mom was doing. At age 16, he decided he wasn’t going to live that way anymore. So, at age 16, he left.
He slept in a park the first night but then moved in with an older friend and slept on his couch. That arrangement worked for a few months until his friend left for college. The adults in the household told him that it was no longer convenient to house him and asked him to leave. He began staying with this friend a week and that friend a night. He’d sleep in the park on warm nights and call it camping. He’d order something cheap and sit in a restaurant on the cold nights. He met with his social worker but she encouraged him to go back home. After all, he had chosen to leave home. He had chosen to be homeless. He was nothing more and nothing less than a runaway.
He applied for a bed in a shelter but found there are very few shelters for homeless teens. To get a bed, he needed to be with his mother (and it would be best if she’d been battered), he needed to be over 18, he needed to admit to having a problem with drugs or alcohol or he needed to be at risk of suicide. There were no beds, no places for healthy, chemical-free teenage boys who chose to leave home and make a better life for themselves instead of being sucked into a sordid world of drugs and alcohol.
In a moment of desperation, he called the father he’d only met once, the father who lived on the other side of the country. The man was surprised to hear from M. and was horrified by what he heard. He invited M. to come live with him. Completely despondent, M. said yes and his father bought him a plane ticket.
Unfortunately, M. was not prepared to have a parent. He had a hard time taking orders from a man had only met once, a man who had been so largely absent in his life. He resented the relationship this man had with his other sons, M.’s step brothers. Within a week, he was hitchhiking back to his friends, his support group, his parks and his girlfriend. Recognizing that he was depressed, without hope, E. talked her parents into letting M. move into their home.
He had been there about 6 weeks when E. found her long-time alcoholic mother lying unconscious on the floor. An ambulance was called. E’s mother was placed in intensive care and diagnosed with Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome. E.’s mom was in danger of dying and, if she survived, would have permanent memory and personality issues. Four days after the ambulance ride, three days after her 17th birthday and five months before her high school graduation, with her mother still in intensive care, E’s dad told her that he couldn’t handle a teenage daughter and a disabled wife. He gave them 24 hours to move out.
Having exhausted their list of friends and family, the two of them slept in a park for a few nights. Worried about surviving in the cold and snow, M took E back to his mother’s house. His mother allowed them to be in the house during the day but at night they had to sleep in the shed in the back yard. They did that a couple of weeks before walking / hitch hiking to our area of town to ask M’s aunt for help.
My intent in sharing some details of his story is not to over share. I simply want to show that none of us are irredeemable. None of us are destined to live in confusion, uncertainty and despair forever. None of us are without hope. Not one of us.
Someone who is homeless is not irredeemable or destined to live in confusion, uncertainty and despair forever. Someone who is homeless is not without hope. To become homeless is not to become a person without a name. It is not to become a person without an identity, without worth or value as a human being. It is to be a human. It is to be a human being desperately in need of companionship, a voice, an advocate. It is to be someone who has endured and lived through, survived more than what we could ever imagine. It is to be someone who needs, not a hand-out, but a hand up.