Monday, November 1, 2010

The Myths about Homeless Youth

The toughest part of my job is not working with homeless youth but trying to educate my fellow citizens about youth homelessness.  I am going to share with you the top two myths that I hear, in hopes that next time you see a kid on the street asking for money or just goofing off you will refrain from judgment and show a little compassion.

Myth #1:  Kids Choose to Runaway From Home


We have this idea that kids choose to run away from home when in reality the majority of homeless youth are there because they were THROWN OUT of their homes.  Here is the reality folks – some parents choose their new spouse or partner over their children.  Some parents do not have the means to provide for their kids.  Some parents do not feel that it is their responsibility to care for their children once they hit their teenage years.  It is an uncomfortable reality but one I see every day.  Not all parents are able or are willing to provide for their children, especially as their children get older and start testing the boundaries.

For those youth that do choose to run to the streets, let’s really think about the choice they had to make.  For many of these youth the choice is this:  Stay in a home where you are being physically and/or sexually abused, stay in a home where you are starving, stay in a home riddled with drug use or with parents suffering from such severe mental health issues they cannot care for you or run to the streets in hopes of finding a better life.

Choosing the streets is no more a choice for many of these kids than choosing to pay sales tax is for the rest of us.  It is out of necessity and survival that this choice is made and I would challenge anyone to ask themselves this question.  If a child is “choosing” to sleep outside in the cold, in the rain, willing to jump into dumpsters looking for food or be spat on while asking for change for a hamburger what must their other options (if they had any) look like? 

Myth #2:  Homeless Youth Just Need To Go And Get A Job Like The Rest Of Us

Now I am not sure this is truly a myth, because it is true statement.  Any youth who is homeless does need a job or a means to provide for themselves financially.  However, let us stop and think about what it takes for a homeless youth to get a job.
1.  The age factor, “Developmental Reality”:  Developmentally a 17-year-old no matter what their living situation is is going to act and behave like a 17-year-old, meaning that working full time and being responsible with money and delaying gratification are usually the farthest things from a 17-year-old’s mind.  Let us take a moment and think back to when we were 17.  Now be honest.  How many of you were chomping at the bit to get up early, pound the pavement for that full-time minimum wage job?  How many of you, once you had that job, just couldn’t wait to put all of your hard earned money into a savings account and watch it grow so you could afford your first apartment?  How many of you looked forward to missing your friend’s party or turned down a date so you could take that extra shift at work?

The reality is that for most of us didn’t.  We were thinking of things that are important to teenagers like getting a boyfriend or girlfriend, looking good, hanging-out with friends and testing the boundaries our parents had set for us.

Even if a youth can overcome their developmental handicap of being stuck in the world of instant gratification lets think about what it takes for a homeless teenager to get their first job.

2.  Basic Needs v. Getting a Job.
When we think about getting a job there are quite a few things we take for granted.
  1.  We have food to eat for breakfast before we go looking for a job.
  2.  We have clean clothes to wear for an interview.
  3.   We have a place to shower to make sure we are clean before we meet an employer.
  4.  We have access to medical care and the means to pay for prescriptions to get ourselves healthy enough to look for a job.
  5. We have a phone number to leave with an employer for a call back.
  6.  We have identification to prove who we are.
  7.   We have a bed to sleep in to make sure we are rested before an interview.
  8.  We have an alarm clock to wake us up on time.
  9.  We have a computer to print out our resumes and submit electronic applications. 

HOMELESS YOUTH HAVE NONE OF THESE THINGS! Going to get a job is not a simple or easy task when you are starving.  Going to an interview without being able to bathe and in clothes that have not been washed in over week is just not possible.  Getting over strep throat without penicillin or applying for a job without leaving a call back number for an employer to contact you is simply not realistic.  It is easy to say “just go get a job” but it is another thing to actually make it happen.  I have worked with kids who have waited over 6 months just to get a birth certificate so they could get an ID and be able to prove who they are!

Next time you see a kid asking for money on the street just stop and think.  Would I be out looking for a job if I had not had a meal in over a day or would I be sitting on the street corner asking for a dollar so I could go to McDonald’s and hit up the dollar menu for a cheeseburger?  For those of you who still think you would be out pounding the pavement looking for work, I challenge you to leave work this evening with nothing but the clothes on your back and head for the streets.  Leave your car, wallet and cell phone behind and find a nice piece of sidewalk to curl up on this evening.  Feel free tomorrow morning to get up in the clothes you slept in and head straight into Horton Plaza looking for minimum wage job applications to fill out.  I promise you that when your throat starts hurting from sleeping in the cold and your tummy starts growling because you have not eaten since lunch the day before, you will be looking less at long-term stable employment and more for what is going to get you fed, washed and clothed right now.

So next time you see a homeless kid on the streets asking for money or blocking the sidewalk because he is trying to show off for his girlfriend remember that that child is still just a child.  Remember that it is we, as society and as parents, that have failed these children in the first place and that maybe what they need is our compassion instead of our contempt. 

- Kriste Draper
CAI Staff Attorney

If you would like to learn more about Kriste's work at the Homeless Outreach Project and ways in which you can donate or help, please visit or contact Kriste Draper at 619-260-4806.

About the Author:
Kriste Draper serves as Staff Attorney for the Children's Advocacy Institute. Her primary responsibilities are to direct the Homeless Youth Outreach Project, providing legal services to homeless youth throughout San Diego County. Draper has been a strong advocate for homeless youth for over a decade; she started her work with the homeless at age 17. Draper is a graduate of the USD School of Law, where she participated in the CAI academic program, and was a co-recipient of the James A. D'Angelo Outstanding Child Advocate Award in 2006.

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