By Sara Davis and Zoë Ziegler
Imagine waking up from a cold and restless night on the unforgiving ground. Rain has left you soaked and you have no other clothes to change into. With no place to shower or get ready for school, your only option is the nearby gas station bathroom. You realize your last full meal was two days ago–a stolen supermarket chicken. As you walk to school in the brisk winter air you hear your peers complain about the various luxuries you lack. Throughout the day it is difficult to step away from the reality of being a homeless youth. After school that night there is no warm meal or warm bed waiting for you. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a tarp, tent, or empty breeze-way, but, like all aspects of homeless life, nothing is reliable.
America is often seen as a symbol of abundance and opportunity, a country of second chances and helping hands. Yet for the 2.5 million youth who are considered homeless in the United States (according to America’s Youngest Outcasts), the red and white stripes have faded to look like the dull stripes of a prison uniform that traps them in the oppressive cycle of homelessness. That number means that about one in every thirty children under the age of 18 experiences homelessness. And, California is ranked third worst among the fifty states, with over 500,000 homeless children living within its borders. In Humboldt county ,last year there were 1,027 documented homeless youth.
As the numbers show, youth homelessness is a real issue that affects people in our own community. Unfortunately, the situation may be even more dire as these numbers are too often under reported. Because of this under-reporting, many students go without help. For example, only eight students were identified as homeless in the Northern Humboldt High School District, even though Jack Bareilles, the local homeless education liaison, identified around 75 homeless youth last year in Arcata High alone. This much of the under-reporting is due to flaws in how the data is collected. According to Roger Golec of the Humboldt County Office of Education however, many numbers may be lower due to lack of self-identification from the students themselves. At least with the older students, many do not want to be identified, or simply do not know what qualifies as homeless. Thankfully, though, there is a law that clearly outlines the qualifications for homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act identifies a wide range of situations, from living in public places or abandoned buildings to sharing a home with another family because they lost their own.
Numbers, however, cannot capture the experience of homelessness as well as personal stories do. A few students currently attending AHS who self-identify under the McKinney-Vento Act courageously put faces behind the numbers. Naomi*, now a homeless youth for four years, has been living with her boyfriend after couchsurfing for six months. Previously, she “was sleeping outside in bushes, on friend’s floors, and in cars,” using her feet and the Arcata and Mad River Transit System as her only sources of transportation. Another self-identified homeless student, Helen*, after being forced to leave the house of her boyfriend’s grandmother, has found ‘home’ with her boyfriend in a tent used by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. During the colder winter months of the year, Naomi uses coffee shops to get warm and to use their free wifi. There she is able to check Facebook, watch YouTube videos, and catch up on what is trending on the Internet among teenagers. Helen’s life does not change to suit the weather. If she is unable to stay in her mother’s tent, she and her boyfriend are left to sleep out in the open in the rain. Allen*, formerly homeless with his mother and sister, now lives with his father in a trailer. When they were unable to pay the rent Allen, his mother, and his sister were forced to leave their residence of fifteen years. Now, with his father, Allen is able to depend on his father for transportation, food, and shelter. As for getting ready for school, gas station bathrooms, friend’s homes or simply outside with a small mirror are these student’s only options. Often times, Naomi will exchange household chores for showers.
Fortunately, school has been a safe haven for these students. To Helen it is “somewhere to go during the day.” Naomi and Allen view school in a different light. Naomi, after almost becoming an alcoholic because “that’s all [she] had to do”, is motivated to stay in school because she does not want to be “stupid and end up like [her] dad, on drugs and homeless.” Allen, like Naomi, also does not want to “end up like [his] mom and struggle with [his] kids.” Peers on campus are relatively understanding of the homeless youth situation, but Helen believes “they view it as a choice when it’s not .” Although Allen has friends who have been homeless or know someone who is, he thinks that “some [of his peers] would think I’m just poor and not care but I think some would be sad.” Possibly because the adults of Arcata High are not aware of which students are homeless, Helen, Naomi, and Allen felt that the teachers and staff are “only sometimes” supportive.
Outside of school, though, these teens are forced to face the reality of their situation. “The hardest thing is finding somewhere to stay and wondering if you’re going to be okay and safe that night,” Helen said, “…getting showers is something I really worry about.”
Due to the long chilly months during much of the year in this area, sickness is a major concern for homeless youth. Sometimes, their parents are part of the problem. Although the Teen Clinic is open for their use, many medications for winter-time illnesses are only available through parent signature release. Naomi experienced this hands-on last winter when she hoped to receive medication, but was denied due to lack of a parent’s signature. Often, parents of homeless youth are no longer associated with their child or do not feel the need to help their child. To Naomi, the hardest aspect of being a homeless youth is her father’s neglect and “not being able to sit down to a warm meal with your family or being in a warm bed. I couldn’t even enroll myself into school because I was underage and my dad cared more about his drug use. [He] even gave my homeless friend $20 for a pair of shoes, when he knew I needed shoes.”
Helen, Allen, and Naomi’s experience with the struggles and setbacks of homelessness have influenced them to achieve greater and better for themselves. “I feel like this is making me more prepared for unexpected life situations, but I’m not very happy with my dad neglecting me for drugs,” reflects Naomi, “I’ve seen a lot of homeless teens in the last few years and I would not wish that upon anyone.”
These three students cannot be blamed for their circumstance. They did not choose to be evicted from their housing situations or to have to ask for change from strangers be their only way to get a decent meal. Unfortunately, according to a America’s Youngest Outcasts report, California is the second worst state in the U.S. at homelessness policy and prevention planning, and lacks a state Interagency Council on Homelessness. There is hope, however, in services that can be found on the local level, especially here at Arcata High. Along with the annual Coats-for-the-Cold drive that AHS organizes, the office is also in possession of backpacks filled with personal supplies. At the beginning of this year, Betty Chin donated 10 backpacks to the school, each filled with school supplies, toiletries, a towel, and a pair of socks. There are still five left, which can be picked up in the office from Rene Campbell, Associate Principal Jim Monge’s secretary.
In addition to these backpacks, the lunch program at AHS provides consistently healthy and interesting food at a low price, especially if you qualify for free or reduced ($0.40) lunch. “Unfortunately, there is a stigma [towards the program],” Campbell said. “ But there shouldn’t be. I am telling you, the salad bar is to die for!”
While these options are great, there is still so much that our campus can do to help out our fellow classmates in need. The Oh Snap! Food Pantry at Humboldt State is a great example of how we could provide staple foods for students when the price of their next meal exceeds what their pockets can support. In addition to the Coats-for-the-Cold and the backpack program, National Honors Society hopes to organize a drive for sleeping material and rain gear.
One of the most important messages from the interviewed homeless, however, did not call for donations, but proposed a change in attitude. Allen put it simply when he stated that people just need to “appreciate what they got.”
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.