Not all homeless youth (ages 12 to 25-ish, not in custody of parent/guardian) are alike. But plenty of the 2+ million homeless youth in America today share many of the circumstances of “Abby,” a 22-year-old woman I’ve interviewed for my latest HEAR US project. Here’s the starter list:
- Dysfunctional parent, in this case her mother, suffering from mental illness, drugs and alcohol abuse. Father not in the picture.
- Abuse, physical and mental, at the hands of her mother.
- Sexually abused by the mother’s boyfriend, became pregnant in her mid teens.
- Responded to her situation by turning to drugs, alcohol and harmful behavior, making choices now haunting her.
- Kicked out, with nowhere to go. Bounced around with friends until she wore out her welcome mat.
- Temporarily taken in by a fringe relative, a functional family that truly cares for Abby.
When I met Abby and her host family, things were frayed. Despite extraordinary hospitality and extremely positive environment, Abby, with her 2 infants (16 months and 3 months), disrupted the household, just because of natural occurrences, like babies crying. “Maxine” is is home-schooling their 2 teens, thus babies crying makes it hard to concentrate. One gave up his bedroom for Abby and her babies.
Abby, despite her self-described and observable intelligence, did not finish high school. A GED is on her list so she can go to college and pursue a medical career. She was inspired by the extraordinary care given to her oldest baby when he almost died.
The baby’s near-death episode resulted in 2 months in a children’s hospital, causing Abby to lose her apartment. That didn’t matter at the time because she was staying in the hospital with her son. Her youngest was with the baby’s father’s family.
When the baby finally recovered and was ready to be released, the family had nowhere to go. A shelter was not an option because no vacancies and a medically frail infant would be too risky in a germ-filled, uncontrolled environment. She has no vehicle, so living in Walmart parking lot like so many do wasn’t an option. Couch surfing with friends not an option for obvious reasons. So, despite hardly knowing Abby, Maxine, husband and 2 teens, stepped up.
This doesn’t always work—the goodhearted housed family accepting a stranger (and babies) into their house—but in this case it did. Maxine is a compassionate, astute woman who realized that Abby had no clue about parenting and lacked life skills. No surprise, given her dysfunctional upbringing?
So Maxine offered Abby a crash course in caring for babies, doing it in a way that it harbored acceptance, not resentment. Abby relished this opportunity. The babies flourished. But, Abby’s time at the house was limited. Abby and Maxine got a painful lesson—how hard it is to find a place to live when you don’t have much money.
When Abby and her son were in the hospital, Maxine ran a GoFundMe campaign for them, raising about $7000 to be used to get them a place to live. Figuring first month rent, security deposit and all the other non-negotiable start-up expenses, this seemingly huge amount was not going to last, but it was a start.
Abby’s income is child support from sperm donors and a pittance of welfare. She gets food stamps and WIC. Her family’s food intake was augmented by Maxine and her family. Maxine also has taught Abby a little about food management and preparation.
Abby showed me pages of phone numbers of landlords and property managers in the Tampa area she called. Hard to ignore the scratches through the names. Babies caused some phone denials. Her tenuous income—planning to work but no job—the other pitfall. Bad credit would have also been a stumbling block but most conversations ended before that. Private rents were $800+. Subsidized, a 10-year waiting list. Location made some places untenable, since Abby doesn’t drive and has no vehicle. Bus line essential.
When I left Abby after our first interview, she had hopes of finding a house trailer and a park that not too seedy or expensive, on a bus line, near places she could possibly work. She asked if I’d come through the area again and wanted me to see her new place. Optimism.
So today, as I was heading to northwest Florida, I texted Abby and asked if I should swing by for a followup interview. She sent me the address.The park, in a mixed area—churches, industrial, commercial. All tired. Units in her park matched the neighborhood. Some decorated with care, others ramshackle. Yellow speed bumps slowed traffic. Kids were evident.
Her bedraggled single-wide 3 bedroom unit had minimal furniture and household items. Her babies had just been at the hospital, with a spate of infections and relatively minor issues. Her doctor wants her to have a CT scan because her recurring migraines are not responding to the meds. Oh yeah, and she has heart issues. Stress, she says. No kidding.
OK, back to the daunting list of issues facing her:
- To get a job, she needs qualified childcare (medical issues huge for both babies). Department of Children and Families seems to be not responsive (Google the department and "dysfunction.")
- She's lined up a job, starting tomorrow, at a chain grocery a mile down the road. She can walk, she assured me. Yeah, and how’s that going to work in bad weather, or at night, or when she needs to get the kids from child care because of illness? And she’ll lose it if she doesn’t get child care.
- She needs to come up with $1500 to pay off the trailer by the end of the month. We didn’t get to discuss why/how because of crying babies. The $4500 down payment will be forfeited without the final payment. And they’ll be evicted. And the owner will be happy. (A worthwhile read on this issue.)
- Her food stamps (SNAP) were inexplicably cut.
- She has psychological issues stemming from her young life’s hellish experiences, but cannot find a counselor that will accept her medicaid payments. And unless she gets help coping, she’ll stress out…you see where this goes.
This is only a short summary. I left her with as much encouragement as I could muster. I tried to cover my horror at the impossibility of her avoiding homelessness again. To say she needs a miracle is an understatement.
And this is just one young woman, an unaccompanied homeless youth with 2 babies. You don’t want to know how many more are out there….