Sep 29, 2008

Seeing Homeless Youth

Do you see homeless young people? If you live in an urban setting, I think it's very likely they are there. Even if you live in a small town, I think they come to your town occasionally. They tell me so, anyway. I live in a big city. They are here. But I didn't see them for 35 years of my life. They were invisible to me.

Street youth like to hang out in places they won't stick out too much. If you have a university, chances are, they will be hanging out there. They are able to blend in better. Plus a university has a lot of people coming and going, so the chances for getting some attention (good or bad) is high. If not there, then a town square or around a fountain in the middle of town.

Do you notice them? It's a little hard to look at homeless people. A friend of mine quoted a pastor saying, "I think a little bit of my humanity dies every time I avert my eyes from a homeless person." I think this may well be truer than we want to admit.

Why is it hard? I think there are many reasons. Let's look at some of the reasons that may keep us from seeing homeless youth.

First, there are the surface reasons. They are dirty. They are stinky. They may have sores and cuts and bruises. They may have fleas or scabies. Yes. They may not be very pleasant to look at -- at least on the outside.

What else? Well, they don't behave like we might like them to. That makes us uncomfortable to see the. They may say things that aren't nice. They use language that we don't like. They seem angry and may swear a lot. They may walk, move and make gestures that aren't polite. They may be wearing things (or not wearing things) that make it hard to look at them because we don't approve. They may seem drunk or high on something. Yes, we can be pretty uncomfortable seeing them because of these surface conditions -- if we don't look closer.

What else? They can make us fear for our safety. They may be dangerous. They may have stolen things. They could have weapons on them. They may be using drugs or drinking alcohol. They may have mental conditions that make it hard to control themselves. And then there are those fleas, lice and scabies again. We don't want to get any of those bugs! Yes... the flight instinct kicks in and we want to flea from the sight of them. And if we don't consider more, we will.

Is this all that stops us from seeing these people? I don't think so. I think it's more than how they are. I think many more reasons for not seeing the homeless are about how we are inside.

First, there is the fact that even when your curiosity gets the better of you and you do spend some time really looking at a homeless person, you suddenly feel like your gawking and you have to look away. Eye to eye contact is a very complex thing in our society. 

Once we have studied a homeless person when they aren't aware of our stares (often through the eyes of someone else... a description, a photo, a video), our hearts starts to hurt  because we can't help but think of many things. "What a waste of a young life," we may thing. Or "What a shame that they have to live like they do." Or "I wish he had a family that would take him in." These are natural reactions to seeing a young homeless person. And having seen past the surface, you're starting to have some empathy toward the street youth. However, we often pull away because it hurts. 

If you start to have empathy, you're also probably going to want to "fix" things. This, too, is very natural. You might say, "I wish I could find a home for that young man." Or, "I wish that young girl would go to the shelter so she could be safe." "If only there were a better place to go." Maybe you feel inclined to give something or buy them a meal or some items at the store. But then things get all complex. "What is OK to buy and give?" "Will I be feeding their pain, enabling them to live this way longer instead of getting help from a shelter?" "Should I give them money?" "Will they just by stuff that hurts them worse?" All of these are good questions, and you're not going to know the answers. And this makes us once again pull away. It helps us to make the street youth invisible again. 

But I encourage you to take heart (literally). Your empathy and your desire to fix something are good. They can set you on a journey of learning and loving homeless youth.

There is also one more complex reason that we often choose not to see homeless youth. Sociologist tell us the homeless youth are a "sub-culture" unto their own. This also implies that the mainline culture is the "dominant culture" to homeless youth. These two cultures, the sub-culture and the dominant culture, live in relationship with one another. They exchange things. They need each other. They feed off each other. 

I believe that we are aware of these cultural relationships (between street youth culture and the main culture) at a pretty subconscious level and this causes us great fear and hurt. You may already have some ideas or guesses about how the two cultures feed off one another and need one another. It isn't generally a pretty relationship. I don't really want to go into it in today's blog, but the street youth have relationships with the dominant culture in many ways: with their parents, with their foster parents, with those who operate shelters, with those who give them money and food handouts. Few of these relationships are good, loving, or healthy. And many may have relationships that are far worse: with abusing or abandoning adults, with adults who beat them, with adults who pay for sex with them, with adults who buy drugs from them.

When we become aware of this relationship between homeless youth and normal culture, it can truly shock us. And our reaction can be to withdraw and see nothing at all, feel nothing at all. I don't think most people are aware of this relationship directly, but almost everyone knows of the horrible things that happen to street youth. Think of the TV shows you've seen that feature runaway children. I think you have more information in your head than you know directly about the relationship between street youth and normal culture.

That's enough for today. Thank you for reading. I hope that you will take all my comments with the understanding that I love and respect street youth. I see them every day. They are unbelievably strong inside. They are courageous. But they have the terrible misfortune of a past that they do not deserve. And it has crippled them and threatens them with a future that no one wants.

I think the first and perhaps biggest gift we can give these street youth, is to see them.... to simply see them. Notice them, make eye contact with them. Acknowledge they are there with a nod.  If you can, overcome all your internal feelings and reactions and smile at them. Maybe waive at them. As you go on about your day, say a prayer for them on the spot. They need energy, hope, and the ability to cope with an immediate crisis of either food, clothing, shelter, health or safety... and sometimes all of them at once.