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A Firsthand Look at Teen Homelessness

Photo+by+Isabel+Garcia+%2F+Artwork+by+Ellie+B.
Photo by Isabel Garcia / Artwork by Ellie B.

Photo by Isabel Garcia / Artwork by Ellie B.

Photo by Isabel Garcia / Artwork by Ellie B.

Lydia Freeman, Contributor

Sitting in the conference room of the main office of Bloomington High School North, an anonymous student pushes her hair back behind her right ear nervously and chews her chocolate muffin lightly, shifting her eyes around the room.

If you saw her at the grocery or the public library, it wouldn’t even cross your mind that she has experienced homelessness in her lifetime.

But she has.

In America, there are over 1.56 million, or 0.5 percent of the population, homeless men, women, and children, according to the Green Doors organization, an organization dedicated to educating people about the homeless and helping those afflicted with homelessness.

Pam Puls, social worker at North for 15 years, sees children being affected by homelessness everyday.

“The homeless, here in Bloomington, are the marginalized,” Puls said “There are a lot of people, including children, who need help.”

With sadness in her eyes, the girl explains what she thinks people see when they see a homeless person.

“I think that a lot of people look at them and they ignore them or are disgusted by them […]” she says. “They might say [in their head], ‘Go get a job,’ but that’s really hard to do. We’d still be in a motel room if my mother didn’t have a car and couldn’t afford it because that’s how she does her job. And we’re extremely fortunate in that way. A lot of people don’t have that.”

But, as she explains, it is even harder for teens to work their way up out of homelessness.

“For adults, they don’t have any work restrictions; they’re already out of school, or they have a GED,” she says, “But because of the laws […] it is hard for teens to go to school, keep up their grades, get a job, and, on top of that, look for a place to live. It causes so much stress and anxiety.”

At North, there are 31 teens who are classified as homeless by the school’s definition.

There are many complex causes for homelessness for adults, such as (in order of popularity): traumatic events, such as job loss, personal crisis, such as domestic violence, mental health and addictions challenges, which can be both a cause and consequence of homelessness, and physical health problems or disabilities.

For the anonymous teenage girl who attends North, her mother suffered from a personal crisis, which ultimately led to homelessness.

As she sits, cross legged in her skirt, she explains her past living situations.

“I’ve bounced around a lot,” she says. “I was born in Indy and moved to Southern Indiana. Then I was in New York for a year. After that, I moved back to Southern Indiana and then to here.”

As she sits straight up in her professional looking chair of the small conference room, she explains that her case of homelessness is a very different one.

“There were so many factors leading up to us being homeless, that those were almost more [emotionally] effective than actually being homeless,” she says.

“We were living in southern Indiana until my mom’s sisters decided that they wanted the house of their mom when she passed, which would have been my mom’s inheritance, and got us evicted […].”

Breaking eye contact and looking down at the table, head bent slightly, expressionless, she continues.

“One of [my aunts], I had lived with for two and a half years, and it was devastating to have someone who practically raised me to be running around calling my mother and [me] whores and dykes to the whole town and everyone that we knew.”

She pauses to take in a breath and keep the newly sprung, hot tears in her eyes from running down her fair cheeks as she remembers the pain of her past.

“And all of a sudden,” she continues,” my friends didn’t want to talk to me because they had heard stuff [about me and my family] from their parents. We moved because we got a ten day eviction notice and then we were here. It was just a whirlwind of stress and terror.”

Homelessness, especially for a teen, can be devastating in the developmental part of early life.

According to The National Network for Youth (NNY), homeless teens and children are: more likely to resort to illegal activity such as stealing, forced entry, and gang activity in order to survive, have higher rates of a variety of mental health symptoms including anxiety, developmental delays, and depression resulting in elevated risk for suicide attempts.

In addition, they are more likely to: fall victim to sexual exploitation and human trafficking when compared to young people who are not living on the streets, contract HIV and/or STDs due to increased likelihood of sexual exploitation, rape, and sexual assault, and homeless young women are five times more likely to become pregnant and far more likely to experience multiple pregnancies.

Luckily, this student did not experience the more severe effects of homelessness, but she did experience other challenges.

“[Having been homeless], it has made me more stressed out about a lot of things and it’s made me a lot more cautious about people,” she says.

She goes on:

“I’m really introverted and I just don’t like a ton of people […] I’m just a mess in a lot of ways.”

Because homelife and school life are so deeply intertwined, many times a teen can get so distracted by one and neglect the other. According to NNY, fifty percent of homeless youth, ages 16 and older, drop out of high school and/or face extraordinary obstacles in trying to finish because of the issues going on around them.

But as this student explains, it wasn’t like that for her. When asked about school, work, and home, she stiffens up in her chair, stops eating her school lunch of an apple, partially eaten pizza, muffin, and juice box, and explains a common day for her.

“A usual school day, before we got a house, was: all of us would wake up to my brother’s alarm clock because we were in a motel room together, and then I would wait for someone to get out of the bathroom so that I could change,” she said. “Then I would come to school and go through that. After that, I’d wait for my mom to pick me up; I’d go back to the motel room or to the library for a few hours after that.”

As she sits back a little, slumping only slightly into the stiff yet comfortable work chair, seeming at ease or peace, she takes a breath, as if remembering the time before and recalling what it is now. She goes on to explain how supportive her mother is with regards to school.

“My mom said to focus on myself and school,” she said. “I just glad that she was like that. I’ve been arguing with her and only recently she has said that it was fine and that I would start looking for a job because, even now, money is tight and we have to conserve and I know that getting a job will help. But I also know that for a lot of homeless people, not being able to get a job for everyone in the family, that is able, is not a luxury that they have.”

Although her mother was very supportive with regards to school, the anonymous girl and her sibling suffered from a situation that many homeless children and teens do: when their parents lose the ability to provide a place to live for their children.

But, as this girl explains, there can sometimes be an answer.

“My mom’s ex-girlfriend had parental rights with me, and she hadn’t paid child support in four years.” she says with annoyance at the memory of the neglect. “This might seem low, but it is what we had to do. My mom would ask her to buy us (the children) food or ask her to pay a little bit on the hotel room while [my mother] was saving up for a house[…]

Even in what seemed like their darkest days, there was help to be found by the VA, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. She continues:

“There was a court order that said she had to pay the child support and she hadn’t, so the VA said that as long as she was paying for some things, then they wouldn’t go after the child support. My mom pretty much said, ‘Help us, or we’ll sue.’ She had to do what she had to do.”

This particular organization, which is not an option for people who have not served, as she explains, helped their family because her mother was in the marine corps.

But what can people who are not homeless do to help those who have fallen down and scraped their knees on the jagged ground of their personal hell?

Perking up and seeming more adamant, the anonymous girl explains:

“Food and clothes are always needed,” she says. “Shelters and food banks that give homeless people food tend to buy things in bulk, so instead of donating the old cans that you have in your house, use the money, the 50 cents, and donate it to someone that needs it.”

There are so many easy and relatively cheap things that you, yourself can do for someone or a family that needs what little help you can provide for them.

For example, instead of having a garage or yard sale, donate your clothes, furniture, other household items to the Salvation Army or to Goodwill. Or, you could have the yard sale, and donate the money to one of the many shelters in Bloomington, including Backstreet Mission, Martha’s House, and New Hope Family Shelter, who are always in need of donations.

By donating the clothes, that are in good condition, but don’t fit you or your children anymore, you can help a mother, father, teen, like the anonymous girl, or child to put at ease their minds about clothing and allow them to focus on school, getting a place to live, or a job.

By helping out in these small ways, you will be helping your community, and those in it, for the better.

 

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The Student News Site of Bloomington High School North
A Firsthand Look at Teen Homelessness