Nov 11, 2008

What Causes Someone to Want to be on the Street

I got feedback that my postings are a bit too long. I'm going to try to tighten them up. If you have feedback, please leave comment!

Each young man or woman has different motivations for being on the street. I'm going to talk about two broad groups. By no means should you think every youth loves the street. They don't, but the street is the best choice they see. I hope our society will address street youth lovingly so they can have and can see better choices.

One identifial group of street youth are travelling kids. They are highly skilled and independent. They move from city to city, by train, rail, bus, and car, are very social, and quick to find new resources to sustain themselves, often working and volunteering in very interesting places. Their lifestyle offers bohemian living and pleasures, rebellion from normal societal pressures, constant change and excitement, and self-control of mobility, location, and peers. These are strong pluses for the youth in this group. It helps us if we acknowledge that they are pluses rather than shaking our head and denying them in unbelief. However, at the same time, the bohemian lifestyle can become depressing. The rebellion can become isolating. The constant change can become boring and same-old. The self-control can become entrapping and out-of-control. These are the negatives. We see them and the youth feel them, often even expressing them after some period of repression. It can help us in reaching out to street youth to feel great compassion for these negatives but still acknowledge the positives. For this group, change can happen when the balance of positives and negatives is perceived by the youth to tip from being mostly positive to being mostly negative. They have skills and can often create different options for their lives given access to resources.

Another identifiable group of street youth are the local kids. They often come from foster homes and lack local support structures. For them, street life is often the first and most meaningful expression of self control they have been able to find. Instead of being told where to sleep, how to think and and what to eat as when they were younger, they are free to control themselves. Unfortunately, they also tend to lack skills to transition to independent living. They are slower to find new resources. They were in difficult environments when younger for a variety of reasons including residential treatment facilities for foster children with mental health or behavioral issues, residential facilities for law breaking, or, in some cases, simply very troubled homes. This group is actuely aware that they don't like their life on the street, but see no other options. For this group, change is slower and more likely to occur as they gain coping and independent living skills.

I believe all street youth have choices for where and how they live (there are always options), but I believe that many of the choices are WORSE than street life. Sure, they could settle into a stable job, but a life of suburban chemical dependency alone is probably not better than a bohemian life of discovery on the street. Sure, they could return home, but continuing to live without independent living skills in a home of origin from which you were once removed is not necessarily better than living in a street community where you start to learn independent living skills. I do not recommend the street life, but I recognize that for many of the situations that the youth find themselves in, it may be the best of several bad choices for them. With time and training, some better options can be made safe for the youth and they can choose to leave the street.

Living on the street is hard. And it represents constant crisis. However, it offers the youth something that they cannot find for themselves any place else at the moment. We need to be compassionate and understanding of their reality. Hopefully, new choices can be created, either by making new choices available or by changes within the youth that create new skills and receptiveness to already existing options.