Poverty and Youth

Poverty and Youth

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Outfitted with an OD green military issue field jacket, a mangy dog on a rope, a bottle of "Mad Dog 20/20" and a cardboard sign that displays the words "Will work for food," Catfish, a homeless Vietnam veteran, rides the rails and occasionally calls the streets of Spokane home. Catfish, personally, may not be well known, but it's easy to recognize that Spokane has a serious problem with the number of homeless on its streets. Spokane has a bigger problem than the stereotypical homeless person though: its homeless youth.

 

In the "afterward" of homeless, a pictorial magazine that depicts the life of our Nation's homeless, Marilyn Winkleby, a senior research scientist for Stanford Center for Research at Stanford University, reported that the Homeless Assistant Act of 1987 defines a homeless person as one who lacks a fixed, permanent nighttime residence or whose nighttime residence is a temporary shelter, welfare hotel, transitional housing for the mentally ill, or any public or private place not designed as sleeping accommodations for human beings. The article stated that on any given night it is estimated that 576,000 to 735,00 Americans are homeless.

 

According to records obtained from the Human Services Department in City Hall, of the 5,163 people that were homeless in Spokane in 1999, more than one-third of them were children under the age of eighteen. In an interview, June Shapiro, who has been the director of Human Services for the City of Spokane for more than ten years, states: "For a city of our size, we do have a problem with homeless youth in Spokane. The biggest concern is the number of youth victimized--victimized at a young age." It's statements like these, especially coming from a city official, that ought to raise red flags and sound off sirens in the hearts and minds of the people of our community. These homeless young people are significant indicators that there are big problems in the American home.

 

Shapiro cites family conflict as the leading cause of homelessness among young people. Family conflict includes problems stemming from drug and alcohol abuse by the parents and/or parents with mental health problems. The fastest growing categories of homeless people are women and children-largely due to domestic violence.

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Opinions among officials vary only slightly as to the reasons for homelessness among youth, and most agree on one thing -- rebelliousness is not the leading cause. As a matter of fact, according to Mark Terrell, the twenty-nine-year-old executive director of Cup of Cool Water Ministries in Spokane, a local Christian outreach to homeless youth-only about 10 percent leave home because they are rebellious. Terrell cites four reasons kids are on the streets:

 

 

Abuse-physical, emotional, and sexual-is the numbers one reason.

 

Neglect or being thrown out by the parents is the number two reason.

 

Born there-second-generation homelessness-is third.

 

Rebellion is the last.

 

Another leading figure in the community that deals with homelessness is Phil Altmeyer. Altmeyer is the executive director of the Union Gospel Mission, and projects that homelessness will only continue getting worse. He is also quoted as saying that the "the number one problem" with homeless youth "is the breakup of the American family."

 

Homeless youth are different from the stereotypical homeless person. A young person who vacates his or her residence for whatever reason usually starts off staying with friends. These accommodations, because of the additional costs and stresses brought on by someone new in the home-especially a troubled teenaged child -- don't often last too long before the youth must move on -- usually to a relative's house. At this point, largely due to conflicts and tensions between the parents of the departed young person and the relative he or she was staying with, some return-after a few weeks or months-and try to make it at home again. This is a volatile stage in the young person's life. Once they've left the home once it will be difficult to stay -- and easier to go -- if similar conflicts arise.

 

Others, however, many of whom may believe there is little hope of resolving the conflicts that initially prompted them to leave, began squatting (living in an unoccupied dwelling), and eventually turn to a life of sleeping rough. Sleeping rough (independent of a friend's or relative's residence) is usually the beginning of a life of hustling-selling drugs and themselves-for most homeless young people. They'll seldom be see with a cardboard sign-although, sometimes they do panhandle because for many homeless young people prostitution is the fastest, easiest way to make money on the streets.

 

According to New Horizons Ministries, a Seattle based outreach to homeless youth, over fifty percent of street kids are involved in some form of prostitution. Terrell, of CCWM, says that prostitution, by both males and females, is the most common method of survival among street kids in Spokane. He explained that all types of sex-ranging from phone sex to a variety of personal sexual favors-are traded for beer, food and shelter. Youth are often preferred to adults by customers of prostitution because of the growing fear of AIDS and other venereal diseases.

 

Much is being done in Spokane to reduce and eliminate homelessness, but officials say much work is still to be done. Only a small number of non-profit organizations that provide meals, shelter, medical treatment, spiritual guidance, and educational and vocational training are working to help these young people. Currently only two state licenced shelters serve homeless youth in Spokane: Volunteers of America's Crosswalk, and Y.F.A. Connection's Crisis Shelters.

 

Besides the Union Gospel Mission and the Human Services of Spokane there are various other agencies that serve homeless youth. The following is an incomplete list of agencies in Spokane:

 

 

Cup of Cool Water Ministries

 

Crosswalk

 

YWCA

 

S.N.A.P.--Spokane Neighborhood Action Program

 

YFA Connections

 

Salvation Army

 

A large number of homeless youth will never exit street life without the proper guidance. They often become parents of second-generation street kids or become like Catfish, a homeless transient who makes it through Spokane about once-a-year. In my experiences, I have found that, more often than not, prevention would have been the key to helping these troubled kids. Once they have adapted to the lifestyle of the streets, it is much more difficult to reach them and help them exit street life. Most homeless young people don't trust adults and feel that they have no options. All they have known is abuse, physically and sexually, by adults on and off the streets. I have to agree with Phil Altmeyer, from whom I quoted previously, who believes rescue ministries-need to be more proactive. The goal of the Union Gospel Mission is to concentrate on the preventative --"especially with youth," claims Altmeyer. "Reaching hurting people is what it's all about. That's the heart of Christ." If in our homes and our communities, we are not reaching those already on the streets and working hard at preventing those who have the potential of ending up there, then we are failing in our homes, failing as a community, and failing as Americans. Most of the above agencies have volunteer positions available for those interested in serving homeless youth. Isn't it time you got involved?

 

Works Cited

 

Altmeyer, Phil. Executive Director, Union Gospel Mission.

Human Services Department, City of Spokane. Unduplicated Homeless Count for the City of Spokane, WA. Ed. Human Services Department. Spokane: 1999.

Shapiro, June. Director Human Services Department, City of Spokane.

Terrell, Mark. Executive Director, Cup of Cool Water Ministries.

"The Need." New Horizons Ministries. Seattle: 1999. 03/13/2000. http://www.nhmin.org/need.htm

Winkleby, Marilyn. "Afterward." Homeless. Ed. Beverly J. Ornstein. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993. 135.

 
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