The system that decomposes you first.
November was first declared as National Homeless Youth Awareness Month in 2007. Since then, November has been a time to acknowledge those children and families experiencing homelessness.
"I've lived in shelters my whole life, girl!" 19-year-old Alyssa Saunders recollects. "Tight spacing, bed bugs, bunk beds and a gym full of families and homeless people." As a child, Saunders knew that she did not have what many kids her age had: a home. "Even when I tried to make a home at the shelter, I knew it could never be home. It was a continuous journey of being in an enclosed space, not knowing which stranger is sleeping next to you or waking up with bites all over your body because of bed bugs," said Saunders. To Saunders, bed bugs were not the worst part of living in the shelter. The most unsettling facet of shelter life was "the system that decomposes you first." "It made me feel like we had all been rounded up to die in that place," she says.
From birth, Alyssa Saunders and her family of five moved from shelter to shelter. Being a freshman in college is a completely new and exciting experience for reasons other than independence or freedom. Living in her college dormitory provides a serenity that has been foreign to her since birth. She can finally sleep certain of where she will lay her head the next day.
According to the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, five to seven percent of American youth face homelessness. Homeless youths often leave their homes due to emotionally or physically unsafe homes. Homeless youths face sexual and physical abuse, addiction or neglect. They become displaced due to familial, residential or financial instability. For Alyssa Saunders, it was a combination of all three, specifically her mother's mental instability. "My mom is abusive because she was severely abused in her life. My mom made it hard for me to make friends or have an education." Saunders knew that her only hope would be getting into college. Although she felt like her "education was delayed by constantly moving," Saunders was able to use her experience and talents to gain scholarships to assure that for the next four years, she has a place to call home. "I told myself one day I will leave my situation. I went to school and I did what I had to do. I spent my life doing what I had to do to leave the shelter."
Saunders was able to identify her gifts of poetry, rap and theater from a young age. Her gifts have taken her into spaces such as The Apollo Theater. “Being homeless allowed me to express myself and my life experience in my poetry and rhymes,” she said. Saunders is a testament that homelessness is not definitive. She is proof that there is life after the shelter. “Having poetry and hip hop as an outlet to break the barriers of my homelessness and my educational instabilities opened up endless possibilities for me such as winning scholarships, getting on Broadway, having Rosie Perez explain to a room full of people that I am not my past but a product of the future.” Thousands of youth, however, are unable to escape homelessness through college or their natural talent like Saunders. They instead are forced to live on the street or sleep on the couches of family and friends.
Most Americans share the “pull yourself up your bootstraps” ideology. They assume that those that are struggling are lazy. 22-year-old Yusef Basir Hickman is proof that this is not always the case. Hickman lived with his parents for 18 years. He wasn't exposed to the housing market until he moved out at the age of 17 with a minimum wage job due to "personal family issues." According to a study done by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, many homeless youths were kicked out from their homes by their parents or knew they were leaving but did not care. "I was forced to go from this 17-year-old kid to a man in a matter of moments. I had to figure out my next steps, my next meals, my next few dollars and how I'd spend them. Homelessness made me land on my own feet," he said.
Hickman faced many obstacles while seeking stable housing. After applying for affordable housing and waiting for months for approval, it took Hickman about five months to find even a single room to rent within his price range. "As a minor and a youth, one of your first obstacles will be your lack of credit history. Secondly, as a young person, you don't have a career which is viewed as a lack of stable income. Overall, finding a place that exists inside my budget was a problem and there weren't any reputable realtors for single rooms, which leaves you open to being taken advantage of."
When youth are not able to acquire housing themselves and overstay their welcome at their friend's homes, they are forced to look for youth housing programs such as: transitional Independent living, which provides homeless youth ages 16-20 with longer-term shelter and support; and crisis shelters, borough-based drop-in centers which provide youth up to the age of 24 with food, clothing and immediate shelter. According to Yusef, however, these programs often do not have the space to accommodate all of the homeless youth living in New York. Even when a young person is able to secure a spot at a shelter or youth program, there are many challenges they face. For Saunders, a severe lack of freedom and personal space were among her many challenges. "In the shelter, we had curfews. That hindered my ability to experience the world or be free or even breathe. The shelters I have been in all had bars around them. I have literally seen kids outside the gates play with kids inside the gates like the boys in ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.'"
Saunders was just one out of the 1.3 million homeless youth which the National Runaway Switchboard estimates live unsupervised on the streets, in abandoned buildings, with friends or even strangers. Homeless youths are often forced to exchange sex or deal drugs to meet basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. It is difficult for youth who face homelessness to re-assimilate into society. There are many factors that inhibit their motivation such as depression, lack of resources or even as Saunders describes, “when someone has the advantage to sitting around all day in free housing, they get lazy.” Some of the effects homelessness has on youth range from mental health issues, substance abuse, unemployment, insufficient education and unsafe sexual and criminal activities. The NN4Y Issue Brief on Consequences of Youth Homelessness report that 45 percent of homeless youth reported mental health issues with only nine percent having access to mental health services. Homeless youths are three times more likely to use marijuana and are 18 times more likely to use cocaine than other youth. These statistics, such as 82 percent of youth exchange sex for money, are the realities of youth who are homeless.
Saunders hopes to use her experience to eventually go back to the shelter to teach those leaving there “not to stay.” She hopes to bring art into the shelter so children and teens can have something to look forward to and learn while being stuck in the system. Her advice to youth facing homelessness is to “make a goal for yourself and exceed that goal. Goals are only set for us to exceed. Once you exceed that goal, keep going because life will throw things at you and try to make you stagnant.” She also encourages them to confide in someone who will listen and understand, preferably someone who shares a similar experience.