Oct 8, 2008

Understanding the problems faced by street youth

Youth on the street face an amazing array of problems. But before we go into that, let's think about the problems that we would think of first. What comes to mind when we think street youth? Runaway? Maybe. Unsupportive family? Sometimes, but certainly not always. No housing? Almost always, but often getting shelter does not change much. No job? Usually, but getting a short term job doesn't often have the positive effect that the average reader might want.

So what are the problems faced by a youth on the street? What dominates their day, takes most of their energy, and occupies their time? 

I believe that survival takes the most from the time and energy of a street person. It almost defines street culture... the art of surviving at all costs, no matter what you have to do. If you need to sleep outside or squat in a vacant building, you do it. But that doesn't give you a good nights sleep... it usually robs you of sleep because of bugs, lights, getting to bed late, and being woken early. If you need to eat from the trash can, you do it. But it doesn't give you any control over your diet or your health. If you need to "sell yourself" in exchange for money, shelter, or safety... you do it.

But there are services and agencies to help out, right? There sure are. I volunteer and work at a couple. However, I have to remind myself everyday that they street youth often live far from where we services are delivered. They have to take buses, ride bikes, and walk to get where we are everyday. And they have to go all over town to collect the services to which we refer them. It's hard to imagine, but here's how I imagine it for myself. "I imagine that I have to apply formy driver's license 4 times today... and the 4 offices are all over town... and my car is broken or in the shop. It's been years since you did this, and I expect they have changed the procedures at all these places. I absolutley don't want to do this today, but this is what I have to do because I need those licenses." That's how I think it feels to access services all day. You're appreciative and you do it, but it's hard and taxing. It takes your attention and your energy. I don't know about you, but I rarely get as much done on days when I have several "mandatory" errands to run like that. The same is true for a homeless street person. When they have to travel from place to place getting lunch, bus tickets, medical care, canned food, clothing, vouchers for something they need, and on and on, it doesn't leave them much time (or energy) for other things. And best of all, it starts all over tomorrow. Survival is tough.

Survival mode puts you in one survival crisis after another. Street youth get used to seeing life as a series of crises. You need lunch, but the bus pass you planned to use to go there got stolen or lost. Now what? You planned to get medical care today, but the clinic is closed because the nurse practitioner is sick or needed to renew her training. Now you need to go across town to a different clinic, but that means you can't get back in time to get your canned goods for the weekend. Now what? These are practical crises that come about because of simple survival. Instead of making progress, you find yourself getting by. But the crises don't stop there.

There are also social crises on the street. The street is tough -- you won't make it unless you are tough, too. It's filled with people who's past and present make them angry, and they often express it in violence. Your safety is paramount on the street. You've got to stick up for yourself. I don't want to give the wrong idea... the street culture is actually a very tight and close-knit group. However, as one person reacts to crisis and makes decisions, it often effects others. One person might make the decision to take something needed from another. This crisis can ripple from one person to the next. It tends to appear overly dramatic to those from the outside, but I prefer think of it as an immediate crisis that threatens the survival of the youth. It has to be dealt with, and this means more time and more personal energy poured into something other than getting help you need, getting better. Instead, you tread water.

Probably we can all relate to a social crisis in the following way. We have our day all planned. It's going to be busy, but pretty cool because of all we're going to get done. But our best friendcomes in and has had a romantic and dramatic breakup. We listen, we comfort, we advice. Pretty soon, our time is gone and our energy is shot. We didn't get what we needed done. However, since we're probably not living in constant crisis, it doesn't matter that much. We can probably choose to do one more thing tomorrow or rearrange things in some other way. However, if our friends was particularly demanding on our time and energy, we may find ourselves being too tired to even figure out how to repair the damage until tomorrow, until after we've had a good night's rest. This is a good plan. But of course, if you're a homeless street youth, you probably wouldn't be able to get a good nights sleep, and before tomorrow you're likely to be presented with at least one new crisis to deal with.

After living this way a while, a new source of crises will develop. Enter the personal crisis. You've been living on the street, depending on the street community for survival. You've gotten used to living with a plan for dealing with the current crisis through the next few hours and then figuring out what to do next. You've come to expect to be tired and dragging. You live in less than wonderful places, and you have to deal with hair lice, body lice, other parasites. You might develop bacterial infections from small scratches or wounds. Your mouth care is far from ideal on the street, so your teeth or gums may hurt. Your stomach takes a beating from strange or bad food, from drinking, from worry and stress. It's hard to keep your feet healthy... you may have sores or infections that make it painful to walk. You may have sex scares... pregnancy, expores to STDs, urinary tract problems.  It drags you way down without a doubt. You may have discovered through the street culture, several ways to numb this feeling... through alcohol, pot, pills, or other drugs. You may experience significant crises of health and mental attitude. You may experience significant crises of your day to day health as affected by alcohol and other substance use. 

As with the social crisis, the energy required to resolve one crisis takes away energy required to deal with the next. Anyone who partied too hard one night and just couldn't manage to get anything done the next day has experienced this. However, if you're living in survival mode, having no energy to deal with each crisis can literally threaten your very survival.

So what are we to do, those of us "normies" who don't live on the street? I asked you to first see the youth and, now, second to empathize and respect what they have to deal with each and every day. It is no wonder they have difficulty to find the time to do the things we would wish for them that we mentioned in the first paragraph (reconciliation, homes, jobs). 

From the time that someone wants to come off the street, it take about 18 months of hard work to accomplish it for the average street youth. Some are faster, some much slower. Some have great help from outside family, some leverage social service very well, some do it almost all on their own. However, it takes a lot of personal strength, inner strength, to overcome the daily crisis and begin to work on the long term planning and improvement. Please hear me when I say that I have great respect for these youth. There is no need to think that everything they do is OK or right. It isn't. But there is every reason to see them, to empathize as much as we can with how difficult their walk in life is, and to say a prayer for their safety and ability to handle the next crisis today.