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    Busting myths about youth homelessness

    An expert panel dispels some of the most common misconceptions about street kids.

    Last week, as part of its Kids@Risk series, Crosscut hosted a discussion on “Myths About Youth Homelessness.” Expert panelists included (left to right) Friends of Youth CEO Terry Pottmeyer, Kristine Cunningham, executive director of ROOTS, Trai Williams and Jon Brumbach from The Mockingbird Society and Crosscut contributor Judy Lightfoot. It was a lively discussion.

    Here, in no particular order, are a few of the homeless youth myths they busted.


    Myth 1: Homeless youth run away for the thrill of it

    Kristine Cunningham, who has worked with homeless youth off and on since 1996, confirmed that she has heard about kids whose parents would give them a ride to “the Ave, and they would just go slum it for a while.”

    But the “cool” appeal of slumming it quickly wore off, said Cunningham said. “What would typically happen…is that members of the street community would say, ‘Hey, it’s not safe out here, you’ll get raped. You’ll get robbed. This is not for you.’”

    “And what I noticed,” Cunningham continued, “is that the street community got really good at vetting itself: ‘What’s your story? Oh no, you can go home.’…They realized that there were only so many dumpsters, only so many shelters, only so many meal programs that they could live off of. They had to make sure that the people who were here didn’t have a better place to be.”

    Many of them didn't. “A lot of people cannot imagine that this young person they’re walking past does not have a safe place to return to," said Cunningham. "But the sad data is that out of the 606 young people we saw at our shelter this year, I only got two calls from parents who I considered to be worth my time.”

    Myth 2: Homeless youth are scruffy, smelly, criminals who couldn’t care less about their communities.

    Trai Williams knows a little about homeless youth. She now works as a Senior Youth Network Representative with The Mockingbird Society, but Trai was homeless herself, off and on, for about 10 years. “I was one of those kids who smelled,” she says. “I smelled so I wouldn’t get tagged by rapists. I wore baggy clothes so that my female figure wouldn’t show.”

    Trai Willams on dressing for the streets.

    Predators aren’t going to “pimp out someone who smells or who doesn’t look right,” Williams continued, emphasizing that life on the streets isn’t so much a thrill as a strategic, high-stakes game of survival.

    If the scruffy appearance of some homeless kids sends a message of indifference to their communities, it may be a learned indifference: “Monkey see, monkey do,” is how Trai Williams describes it. "Society always tells us, ‘you’re nothing but a homeless, smelly bum.’ So that’s the way you act.”

    Trai Williams on which survival skills proved helpful in the mainstream world.

    Friends of Youth CEO Terry Pottmeyer has run into this myth again and again, especially, she said, when Friends of Youth was trying to find a permanent location for its Eastside shelter. “That’s when I really confronted this assumption about the population we were serving head-on,” says Pottmeyer. “It was articulated very clearly, very loudly, by a very large group of people in a community meeting that they did not want to have criminals staying in their communities. And it was so hard to get them past that assumption.

    “Years later we did open a short-term shelter on the Eastside,” she continues. “The community said this is great. We love what you’re doing. But not here. Someone should take care of them, but not us.’”

    Myth 3: There are no homeless youth in suburbia.

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    Posted Sun, May 11, 11:47 a.m. Inappropriate

    Kids who have been in long-term foster care rarely have the skills necessary for independent living. DCFS does have an extended foster care/independent living program but many youth opt out at age 18 because they don't want anything more to do with the system even when it might benefit them.

    Even more critically, these kids lack all social support. How many kids from well-to-do families with a history of family stability could make it if they were dumped on the street with the clothes on their backs and told to go make a life for themselves? How much less likely for a kid who was in multiple placements, some possibly worse than the home they were removed from, with little education and whose experience with mainstream society is limited to the police, the courts and social workers.

    As a society we like to say how important children are and how much we value education. We say this a lot because it's not true.


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