Last night I took my kids to a vigil in honor of runaway and homeless youth at a local partner agency, Women and Families Center. “Often called Connecticut’s ‘invisible’ population (Director of Prevention and Intervention Services, Carissa Conway), data shows that while runaway and homeless youth are present in Connecticut, they are rarely seen or recognized.” There are a significant number of youth spending time on the streets and engaging in “couch surfing” – serial short-term respite with friends, relatives or strangers.
The event itself was beautiful and heartfelt. The two stories shared by youth (now young adults) touched by the program were powerful and full of hope and resilience, and it was inspiring to be there. They tolerated my daughter’s desire for the microphone with grace, and I was shocked to see how much my son was paying attention. Later in the evening, when they asked all of us to name our hopes/dreams and challenges for their mural, my son was an enthusiastic participant. “I want to be a construction worker. I want to be a train driver. I want to help people.” Melt my heart.
Then he moved on to the obstacles that stand in his way. Many of the participants identified things like discrimination, poverty, low self-esteem, depression and no family support. My practical 7-year-old identified “no tools” and a need for a driver’s license. Later, he also wrote on his obstacles “people who bully me” and “worries.” My heart dropped into my stomach.
Homeless youth may have been kicked out of their homes, may be in care of child protective services, be victims of physical or sexual abuse or not be able to stay in shelters with their family members. We are quite blessed and fortunate that our son isn’t facing those particular risk factors. Yet, we also know that bullying and unchecked worries can lead to destructive decisions. As we work together as a community to help safeguard youth from making potentially irreversible destructive decisions, I’m reminded how as parents we’re charged with that same challenge every day, even at the young and innocent age of seven.
“Runaway and homeless youth may continue to attend school and blend into their community. Often kids run away from home to remove themselves from an immediately painful situation, but they have no plans or resources for what to do next. Runaway and Homeless youth consider suicide, trade sex for a place to sleep and food and very often don’t consider themselves to be homeless.” (C. Conway)
I remember with some pain and some pride how I navigated my way through my own couch-surfing years, and I remember vividly what helped. No matter what, there was always at least one person I could trust and share my worries with. That person may have changed from one time to the next, but there was always at least one. In my mind, I gave them lifeline credit, though they would never take it.
Who’s lifeline can you be today? It may be your own child. It may be their best friend. It may be someone at church or watching a kid spend endless hours at the library. A lifeline can start with deep listening and holding hope. A lifeline can start with you.