Authored by: Heather Denny, State Coordinator for Homeless Education, Montana Office of Public Instruction.
I’ve been to countless conferences. I’ve sat through hours of professional development. I’ve probably spent days conferring with liaisons, service providers, school administrators, national policy experts, advocates, and my peers who do this work. But when a youth experiencing homelessness came to stay with me and my family, I learned more in one week than I’ve learned in a very long time.
Tell them how you are willing to help. Be honest. And then keep telling them every time they talk to you. They need to hear the same message every single time. They need to know the message isn’t going to change. And they need you to be honest about what you can and can’t do. They have had enough people in their lives who have changed the rules, or let them down, or just outright lied to them.
Give them space. You aren’t their parent, you’re just the person they have reached out to. You’ve told them how you can help. You repeat that message. They hear you. They just aren’t always ready to act right away on the information you have given them. Often, they are pulling themselves out of a rut, which is hard. They have to do it one step at a time. They have to give each step some thought before they can move on.
Create a safe space. This one is hard. They don’t trust. They have been hurt by people, sometimes in horrible, soul-crushing ways. The first night she stayed with us, she laid awake in my daughter’s bed all night. All night long, we heard her moving around and getting up to go to the bathroom. The second night, we think she slept a little. The third night, she offered to move into the extra room downstairs. We’re a week in now, and I’m starting to move the yarn and fabric out of that room to give her space for her clothes in the drawers. She’s putting her things in the closet and the empty drawers. We’re building trust.
Only give them the help that they ask for. I could clear up her over-drafted bank account. I could pay off her late phone bill. But doing those things won’t help her in the long run. And she hasn’t asked me. What she needed was a safe place to sleep, where no one would beat her or sexually assault her. I can give her that. I can provide her with regular meals. And when she got sent home from work because she didn’t have non-slip shoes, I could take her to buy a pair. When I did press her for anything else she really needed, I bought her socks. The shoes and socks help her stay at work, so she can earn the money she needs to get her finances back on track.
Share your life experiences, if you have them—but selectively. I’ve been homeless myself, but I don’t share that with her, because I never had to struggle the way she has. But my husband had similar struggles, and he sat with her and talked about what’s it like to live on three $1 hotdogs a day while you sleep in your truck. He’s known hunger. His messages to her are authentic and honest.
I know there are many more lessons to come. And I’ll be honest: I thought I “knew” these lessons all along. But there’s a huge difference between “learning” them in theory and putting them to practice. I don’t know if she’ll stay with us. I don’t know if we will see her get her feet back under her and move on to success. I only know that right now, there’s a starfish struggling on the beach, and I have the chance to make a difference for this one.
And if all else fails, I think I’ve done a pretty good job in raising the person who brought her home with the simple statement, “Mom and Dad, I have a friend who needs a place to stay right now.” I’m pretty sure that there will be other starfish in our lives. We can’t fix the world, but we can keep fighting for the kids who need us.
Post-script: She stayed with us a little over a month, and then moved out with friends. She almost came back, staying a few hours before she left to help someone in crisis. I reminded her, once again, that she can’t pour from an empty pitcher. Sometimes you have to say no, to build yourself up first. But that is often the fatal flaw for homeless youth; they know so many peers in crisis, and they know what it is like to suffer. The little that they have, they give to others with greater needs.
We have kept in touch through Facebook. I “Like” her posts, and comment now and then. Sometimes I share an encouraging meme. I remind her, in all the little ways, that there is someone who cares about her as a person. She reached out to let me know she was working two jobs and looking for an apartment, and asked if I knew someone who could help. So I told her to call the local youth program, that they knew about her, and were waiting for her to call. She also asked me for my cell phone number, because she was shutting down her Facebook account. I don’t know if or when she will reach out to me again, but she has my number, and she knows there is always a safe place to land. Sometimes that’s all we can do.