Invisible From The Inside Out

I’ve been doing some writing lately; working on a book tentatively titled GED to PhD. I’ve also written a couple of essays, one short memoir and one very short fiction. The memoir piece was accepted by an online literary journal, The Rumpus, and they published it today – which is both terrifying and awesome!

I wrote about what it felt like to be a homeless teen. It was my experience in the early 80’s, but things are not so much different today. There are a lot of kids out there in the same type of situation I was in. I recently wrote a blog post about why homeless youth are difficult to find and tend to stay away from services that might be able to help them. I don’t have any answers about how to fix these problems, I just want people to know that they exist, and maybe someone smarter than me can figure out what to do someday. Here’s the link to my essay.

http://therumpus.net/2014/02/invisible-from-the-inside-out/

I would love to hear your feedback.

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The Black Notebook

notebookPeople ask me all the time why I was so determined to go to college; what inspired the trek from GED to PhD. I’ve talked about it with a few people, but never written about it before.

My parents were working class people. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone with a college degree, or in a professional position. Education was not valued in my community, my family, or my peer group.

Due to issues of addiction and mental illness in my family, I ended up on my own and was homeless by around 15 years of age. I dropped out of high school because I had a hard time getting there, and because it didn’t matter to me. For me, school was meaningless, and the kids were pretty mean. I tried to fit in, but I was very introverted, emotionally crushed by my parents, and I could never really get the hang of small talk. The other kids thought I was weird, because I was.

Some guys I knew used to break into cars at the university during class sessions when they were very desperate for money. Once they brought back a briefcase that had combination locks on the latches. They were very careful not to break it open and it took them a long time to pick the locks. I think they were envisioning stacks of cash or something would be inside. When they finally got it open, all that was inside was an old-school solar powered calculator, a ruler, and a black notebook. Quite disappointed, they immediately lost interest, and moved on to something else.

I picked up the notebook flipped through the pages. It was page after page of small very neat printing. There was a name inside the front cover, which I can’t remember other than that it was a man’s name. I started reading and was entranced. I remember thinking as I read the words, that these were things I had thought about, concepts and ideas that I had never talked about with anyone. I think it was psychology or philosophy, but I  don’t quite remember the content. What I do remember was the powerful connection I felt to this person. It was as if he were right there talking to me about things that I never knew other people even thought about.

So I read the whole thing. Front to back. I thought at the time it was a student’s notes, but now that I’ve been through a whole lot of school, I believe it was probably a TA, or a professor’s class notes.

While I was reading that notebook, I could clearly envision myself in college. I imagined it to be a very civilized place where people exchanged ideas and learned from each other. I had never in my life thought about attending college, but now I firmly believed that this was a place where I might fit in and the thought was astounding. I didn’t even have a high school diploma, and the chances of me getting one were less than zero.

I kept the notebook for a short while, but lost it somewhere within the next few weeks. However, I never lost the feeling I had when I read what was written inside; I felt like someone understood me, and the things I thought about, and I absolutely knew that I would go to college.

Then, lots of life happened and college stayed in the back of my mind for almost twenty years. When I finally enrolled in a community college I was in my early thirties, with four (amazingly wonderful) kids. I loved it. Long story short, I transferred to the University and went as far as possible earning a PhD in 2011.

On my PhD graduation day, I thought about the man who wrote the notebook. A man who will never know the impact he had on me. I wished I could apologize for the stolen notebook, thank him for changing the trajectory of my life, and let him know that his words inspired me to see the world with a wide open mind and never give up.

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8 Formerly Homeless Famous People

Homelessness is not a character flaw, and is not an indication of a person’s motivation. The two biggest factors driving homelessness are poverty and the lack of affordable housing. It is a situation that many, many people find themselves in. Many people who experience homelessness do find their way out and move on from this dangerous and lonely condition. Some, like the following 8, take their hard learned lessons and turn them into a tenacious quest to pursue and attain their highest potential.

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Halle Berry: Oscar winner Halle Berry spent some time in a homeless shelter during her early, struggling years in Chicago as she was trying to make a name for herself. She said in an interview “It taught me how to take care of myself and that I could live through any situation, even if it meant going to a shelter for a small stint, or living within my means, which were meager. I became a person who knows that I will always make my own way.”

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Jim Carrey: Comedian Jim Carrey dropped out of high school and lived in tents, cars, and friends homes with his family after his father lost his job. He had a very rough upbringing, which he credits with developing his sense of humor and drive for success.

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Jewel: Grammy winning singer Jewel spent a period of time living in her van after she was fired for turning down her boss’s sexual proposition. She also had a serious illness and almost died due to lack of insurance and medical care. “During that time, I had people treat me like I was nothing, like I didn’t matter, but there were a few people that didn’t treat me that way. They made me feel like I was still important, like I was still a part of society, and I still mattered. I’ve been able to go on and do great things, and the same is true for a lot of people in public housing.”

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Chris Gardner: Inspiration for the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, was homeless with a young son in San Franscisco. His childhood was “marked by poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, sexual abuse and family illiteracy.” He is now a very successful author, motivational speaker, and CEO.

Baltimore Ravens Training Camp August 5, 2009

Michael Oher: The first round NFL draft pick was one of 13 siblings, never knew his father, was in and out of foster care, and eventually became homeless during his teen years. He attended 11 schools in 9 years while his drug addicted mother lived in public housing. His story was turned into an Oscar winning movie The Blind Side.

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Kelly Clarkson: The first winner of American Idol, Kelly Clarkson moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. The apartment she shared with a roommate caught fire forcing them to live in a car and a homeless shelter. She returned to her home state of Texas where she auditioned for American Idol and launched her successful singing career.

Shania Twain at the Junos - March 27, 2011.

Shania Twain: The Grammy winning singer was raised in poverty and abuse in Toronto, Canada where her family went without heat in the winters and often went hungry. She and her four siblings lived in homeless shelters with their mother.  Shania is now worth over $350 million.

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Hilary Swank: The Oscar winning star spent most of her childhood living in a trailer with mom. When she was 16 she dropped out of high school and she and her mother moved from Washington to Los Angeles with very little money and no place to stay. They lived in their car until they could save enough money for an apartment.

While many people who experience homelessness find their way out, very few go on to have the magnitude of success that these 8 people did. But, for every person who experiences homelessness, there are hard life lessons learned, and most develop a very deep appreciation of things that most people take for granted; a trait which helps them to focus on their goals rather than their obstacles.

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Why Homeless Youth don’t Seek Services

Teen girlIt is estimated that there are approximately 1,700,000 runaway and throwaway teens in the USA today. This is not a definitive number because homeless youth are very difficult to count. This is largely due to the fact that they do not interact with adult homeless assistance programs or governmental agencies. In fact, they avoid such services. The majority of homeless youth stay with friends or relatives as long as they are allowed, and many stick together in small groups and support each other in any way they can. There are several reasons why they don’t seek help that might be available to them.

They are minors. Kids under the age of 18 are not allowed to use services intended for adults. Temporary housing, healthcare, and other services that cater to adults can’t legally provide help to unaccompanied minors. They are not eligible for public assistance, food stamps, or other government programs. Additionally, as minors, they are not allowed to enter into contracts, so even if they could band together and find affordable housing, no landlord can rent to them.

They don’t want to be incarcerated, put into the foster system, or returned to an abusive home. The fear that they will be turned over to the authorities keeps a lot of homeless kids from seeking help.  Many believe being in the foster system or in a state run institution would be worse than being alone. They have very few rights under the law until they turn 18.

They don’t trust adults. Most homeless youth come from high conflict home environments and have been severely neglected and/or abused. Trust and attachment issues are extremely common. They tend to trust each other, and no one else.

They don’t know about services. This was especially true in the past.  I think it has gotten better, but it is still a problem, especially in less urban areas.

They don’t self identify as runaways or as homeless. Most of the services that are in place to help homeless youth tend focus on help for ‘runaways’ and the majority of them do not self identify as runaways, or even as homeless.  Most were thrown out of their homes, or left because of abuse and neglect. They feel the label ‘runaway’ implies they are bad kids or did something wrong to cause their situations, and the term ‘homeless’ is associated with the stereotypical mentally ill adult or street panhandler, which also does not apply to them.

Unaccompanied teenagers make up about 5% of the homeless population overall. Most of them are quite resourceful, and if you saw one, you probably wouldn’t notice anything different about them from any other kid. Unfortunately, without support, guidance, and resources, many of them end up in trouble. Addiction, violence, and incarceration are what a lot of them have to look forward to in adulthood if they don’t get help.

All kids deserve a chance at life, including (especially) the ones that nobody wants.

For more information on how to help homeless youth:

Covenant House: http://www.covenanthouse.org/
National Runaway Switchboard: http://www.1800runaway.org/

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5 Worst Things About Being a Homeless Teenager

Criss Jami QuoteI spent most of my teen years homeless. My situation was not that different from a lot of other runaways and throwaways in the 80’s. Many people think that homeless teenagers are prostitutes and panhandlers. In fact, very few do either of those things and the ones that do are in basic survival mode. Unfortunately, they are all very vulnerable to various types of predators. Many end up abusing drugs and/or alcohol and eventually become incarcerated for delinquent behaviors. The ultimate cost on these kids’s lives, as well as on society as a whole, is immense.

Overall they are a very misunderstood group of young people who are dealing with a lot of the worst of what life has to offer. The following are a few of the worst things that I remember about being a homeless teen, in descending order.

5) Isolation. It is incredibly difficult to go to school without a consistent place to live, and when I dropped out I lost contact with the few friends I had. Part of that is because I am very introverted by nature, but mostly it was because I didn’t have a way to keep in touch.

4) Shame. I had an on-again-off-again boyfriend during those years who used to say to me “Your own mother doesn’t even want you.”  The saddest thing about his statement was that it was true, and I felt it on every level.

3) The elements. I lived in Minneapolis where it is very, very cold in the winter. I usually had  shelter at night, but there were days that I spent walking for hours because I thought if I stopped I would freeze to death. And, I might have.

2) Loss of identity. Adolescence is a time when people begin to become who they will be in life. I had a very difficult time imagining a future of any kind. I didn’t belong anywhere or with anyone. It’s hard to explain the impact this had, but decades later, I still feel that I am on the fringe of any group I become a part of.

1) Being treated like trash. For me, the worst part about being a homeless  teenager was the debasing way that I was treated. No child is living on the street because they deserve it. They are there because the adults in their lives screwed up.

This was part of my experience. I don’t speak for anyone except myself. I just want to say please think twice before passing judgment on homeless youth. They feel it. A little bit of basic human respect goes a long way.

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5 Suggestions for Homeless Youth

future, present, pastEveryone in the world has trials and tribulations to deal with. However, some people start out with a deck stacked way against them; homeless youth generally fall into this category.

To try and navigate life without the benefit of a home or parental guidance is a very tough order. Kids learn who they are by watching who they are with, primarily the parents or guardians who take care of them. But, what happens when there are no parents or responsible adults to provide safely and guidance?

There are about 1.7 million homeless teens in the country right now. That’s a lot of kids without structure, consistency, and safety of a regular home. For them to have a chance at life, they will have to overcome barriers that most people couldn’t even imagine.

It is a long road to travel, but worth every step. Adversity creates strength. It sucks going through it, but pushing forward toward the other side of a painful past is the only choice there is.  I have found that the following 5 things are a good place to start if you are overcoming a harsh, neglectful, or abusive past.

1) Determine exactly who you want to be. This is a big deal. You have to have a very clear vision of who you want to become, what you stand for, your strengths and weaknesses, etc. You need to very specifically define what you want for yourself and for your life. This is extremely difficult to do if all you have been exposed to is dysfunction and neglect, but it is crucial that you find a way to envision a future. One way to clearly define exactly who you want to be is to write it down. Imagine the qualities you want to possess, where you want to live, what you want to do, and how you want to think. Be as specific as possible. Once you have clearly determined who you want to be, hold that image in your mind as clear and as often as possible until you solidly internalize it.

2) Don’t expect that life will be fair.  The last thing life is, is fair. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people all the time. Don’t try to make sense out of any of it. You can never know all of the angles of a given situation. You can only see your perspective at the time. Feeling that you have been given a raw deal does not help you to overcome anything. Doing your best to move toward your goal of becoming who you want to be is the only way to get there.  A lot of people believe in karma; that what goes around comes around. It might be true, it might not be. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is who you want to be and how you’re going to get there. Once you really focus on that, the unfairness of the world can become less overwhelming.

3) Don’t let others’ opinions and/or treatment of you guide who you become. There are people who will ridicule you and try to keep you down, and that says a lot more about them than it does about you. Do not give toxic people the power to influence your life. Treat yourself with the dignity and respect that you have always deserved and let that guide the way you treat others. There is a lot of prejudice aimed at people who are living a life that is different from the norm (whatever the norm means anymore).  Don’t spend time with people who treat you badly.

4) Keep your head clear. Always. I can’t emphasize this enough. I know you want to feel different or better; you want to dull your senses for a while so you can have a short reprieve from your emotional pain, but drugs and alcohol are the worst things you can do. You need to be able to think straight if you want to take control of your life and your future. When you are impaired, you are much more vulnerable to predators and others who will take advantage of you and try to keep you down. Your greatest asset is your mind. Don’t poison it.

5) Be careful who you trust. Unfortunately, most homeless youth have experienced a lot of let downs from adults who were supposed to take care of them. Trust your intuition. If you get a feeling that someone is not good for you to be around, you’re right. The flip side of this is that there are people out there who are genuine and want to help you. Let them. It is not a sign of weakness to accept help from others.

Homeless youth grow up to have more strength and resourcefulness than most others due to the adversity they have experienced. It is very difficult to overcome such a past but it is absolutely possible. There is no single trait or characteristic that can predict who will make it and who will not. Belief in yourself is the foundation to your future.

Know what you want, find a way to believe in yourself, and hold on to it with all you have

The following links are a good place to start if you need help.

http://www.covenanthouse.org/

http://www.standupforkids.org/

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Preventing Juvenile Crime

HandcuffsIn recent years, researchers have studied various intervention strategies and programs that were created to reduce delinquency and promote social development in at risk youth. Unfortunately, even with over 10 years of solid research about evidence based programs and strategies, only about 5% of eligible youth actually participate in the programs.

This, of course, results in a waste of time, money, and other resources. It is widely acknowledged that teens who participate in illegal activities are at increased risk for drug abuse, injury, incarceration, unplanned pregnancy, and dropping out of school. Additionally, the vast majority of adult convicts have criminal records dating back to their adolescent years.

The primary goal of preventing delinquency is intended to reduce the financial cost and emotional burden on potential future victims as well as on society as a whole. It costs billions more per year to arrest, prosecute, and treat offenders. The investment in successful delinquency prevention strategies has been shown to save taxpayers 7 to 10 dollars for every dollar invested, as it reduces spending on incarceration.

Unfortunately, most agencies do not have the data systems in place that could allow them to assess which programs are effective and which are not. Many policy makers are unaware of research evidence on programs and policies that are effective in reducing juvenile delinquency as well as cost efficient.

What does not work: DARE, Scared Straight, Boot Camps, and charging juveniles in adult courts have all been proven ineffective, and have actually been shown to increase the risk of future delinquency.

What does work: Programs that involve contact with the community and interaction with therapists in the home. Life skills training programs and school based programs for helping reduce dropping out and drug use have been shown to be quite effective in reducing and/or preventing delinquency.

Basically, to help prevent future crime, it is imperative to pay attention to at risk teens and provide solid support, guidance, and opportunity for development. A little nurture can go a very long way. Everyone loses when kids fall through the cracks and begin a life of crime.

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Cold Winter Causing Homeless Deaths in Bay Area

No more homeless deathsWhen temperatures in the San Francisco Bay Area plunged close to freezing levels on December 10th, Joe White became the 7th homeless person to die of weather related causes this year in one of the most affluent areas of the country.

Mr. White was found in a courtyard, beaten up, and robbed by several men who took his new winter coat and left him wearing just a hoodie and shorts. Cause of death is still undetermined, but police speculate that weather played a key role.

Approximately 700 homeless people die from hypothermia each year. The majority of those deaths usually occur in the Midwest and the East Coast, but this year California is has been colder than usual, and thousands of homeless people are trying to find shelter in very cold weather.

The San Francisco Bay Area has one of the largest homeless populations in the country, partly due to a significant lack of affordable housing. This very wealthy area has seen rising housing costs and more evictions during the past few years, which has had an impact on many people.

The vast gap between the haves and the have nots grows wider everyday…

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Homeless Kids and Education

Report CardThe fastest growing segment of the homeless population in America is families with children. Federal data show that for every 200 school age children in America, 3 are currently homeless and more than 6 will be at risk for homelessness.

The impact of homelessness on children and teens is devastating on many, many levels. Education is an area that is highly affected by an inconsistent and/or unsafe living condition. There are many barriers to going to school, such as lack of transportation, school records management, district residency requirement, etc. In fact, 87% of homeless youth are enrolled in school, but only 77% attend consistently.

With such uncertainty in the home, school could be a place for homeless students to find structure, safety, and consistency. The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) is working hard to advocate for the educational needs of homeless children, and to help in preventing more from becoming homeless in the future.  They have a lot of great information on their site.

No child or youth deserves to be homeless.

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5 Warning Signs of Teen Homelessness

brick wallIt is very difficult to count homeless youth because they are, for the most part, unlikely to seek help and they do not hang out in the same areas that older homeless people inhabit. Homeless youth are more likely to try to blend in with other teens who have homes, and frequently they do not self identify as “homeless.”

There are programs designed to assist homeless youth, but there is very little research assessing how different interventions assist subpopulations. More accurate data is desperately needed. 

The following signs are a few things to look out for if you suspect a youth you know may be experiencing homelessness.

1) Absence from school. Homeless youth generally lack the ability to pay for school necessities and they are usually unable to obtain the personal records needed for enrolment. It is very difficult to attend school without an address or a consistent place sleep and most homeless teens end up dropping out.

3) Difficulty trusting others. Many homeless teens have difficulty trusting others and may avoid interacting with people. They may withdraw and experience anxiety, phobias, and difficulty socializing.

4) Chronic hunger. Finding food is very difficult for homeless teens and when they have access to it they might hoard or steal to keep from going hungry.

5) Poor hygiene. Finding bathroom facilities and showers can be a daily challenge for homeless youth. Many have only the clothes they are wearing and are unable to wash them with regularity. 

Homeless youth frequently exhibit anger or embarrassment when asked about where they are living, and they may give vague explanations if asked about the above 5 signs. The best way to help a homeless youth is to show genuine respect for him or her and prove that you are a person that can be trusted, and then take it from there. 

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