"At-Risk" Youth and Our Capacity for Apathy

Earlier this summer, a couple of fellow yoga teachers and I got together to serve a meal at a local homeless shelter that offers a weekly youth night. This wonderful program works as such: outside organizations or small groups bring the donated, pre-prepared food and serve it to the kids -- who are not so much children, but the teenagers and young adults in the 16-21 age range who happen to show up that evening for a free dinner.

We made tacos, thinking it would be simple to both make beforehand, transport and serve; additionally, taco ingredients are pretty cheap, so we knew we could make a little go a long way. And, who doesn't love tacos?! We showed up, set out all the ingredients, and waited. 

Slowly, the kids trickled in -- and pretty much ignored us. It became clear that this evening was their night: to see their friends, to catch up, to joke around, to reconnect.

A staff volunteer dribbled a basketball toward a group of guys right outside the door, next to a hoop that'd seen many a game over the years.

A tall, gangly buzzed-head white boy in a band t-shirt flirtatiously shouted broken Spanish across the room to some of the girls -- adding with a smile that he knew French, too.

A well-dressed, gorgeous black girl sporting flashy rings and perfectly done up hair sat next to a young couple carrying their little baby in a car seat, all of them cooing and making faces at the child inside.

Another girl with braces sauntered up to the counter where we stood, then shouted back at her boyfriend, "Baby, they got onions, and I'm going to eat them and kiss you!" He replied that he didn't care, he would kiss her back, and strolled up later for a second plate with extra onions, please to bring back to her.

An older gentlemen, seemingly a long-time veteran and volunteer for the shelter, cracked jokes about hot sauce and salsa ("the hotter the better!"), while another kid jogged up to nudge him, and say surreptitiously, "Hey man, thanks for helping me get that bike, I really appreciate it." The old man shook his head like, cut it out, no problem, don't mention it.

Meanwhile, we volunteers stood inside the tiny kitchen overflowing with hand-me-down utensils and serving dishes, and chatted with the volunteer coordinator. She explained that this age group of kids may or may not be homeless; sometimes they just don't have a great family dynamic, and choose to live where they can on their own. Sometimes they had no choice; sometimes it's forever, sometimes it's temporary. Regardless of circumstance, one constant she witnesses as a supervisor is that kids in this age bracket are typically not comfortable with adult centers.

She said, "They need a place to go where they can be just kids, where they can talk about their lives, see their friends, play games, eat some food, get basic supplies, hang out. We offer a safe, reliable space. They know they can come here every week on this night, and we'll be here."

The announcement to kick off dinnertime was short and sweet and, well, practical: Respect is key. Hand over any weapons, or you gotta leave. Get in line to eat. Smoke break is at 8.

The kids obeyed, despite throwing out a few "awww, man!"s about the lack of an additional smoke break, and then they inhaled the food, all while thanking us, saying please and thank you along the way. One added, "We almost never get tacos, or something hot, so this is great!"

And I stood there, thinking about how much I take for granted, how easy my life can be. For me, it was $25, a trip to the grocery store, some Facebook message coordinating with friends, and few hours out of my evening. It didn't take much, and it didn't feel like enough.

As a newbie college grad in Chicago, I worked in a communications office for a large urban church. Our staff frequently dealt with the intersection of affluent Michigan Avenue church-goers as well as low-income kids coming in for after-school tutoring programs and homeless men and women begging right outside our stone doors.

I grew up in a small town in central Illinois, where I experienced little to no interaction with anyone struggling with homelessness. It initially felt shocking to live and work downtown in a big city, where you stepped past someone sleeping on a curb or asking for a couple dollars almost every five seconds.

And then . . . I got used to it.

Every day, I put on my "city face" -- a blank and bold and no-nonsense expression, so I thought, anyway -- and walked fast and ignored any "Excuse Me?" and avoided interactions by crossing to the other side of the street.

This attitude served me well, in terms of getting to where I needed to go without much hassle. Because most days, that was the priority, right? Me. My commute. My pace. My comfort. My life.

But then I would arrive at my office, a church, where I saw many familiar faces, some of which were the same folks who regularly lounged around our entrances and steps. I volunteered once a week, passing out sack lunches to lines of people coming for a hot meal and help with housing. I listened to people preach about mission trips, donating books and time, youth efforts, community gardens, giving back. I learned from my boss to write "families facing low-income struggles" versus "low-income families" and "people struggling with homelessness" instead of "homeless people" because to her -- and she's right about this -- the "at-risk" part is always the qualifier, the adjective of the situation. It doesn't describe the person. People aren't "at-risk"; they are people, and their circumstances are risky.

Our teams worked incredibly hard to bring forth faith and justice and change, and yet, when I left to go home every day, it was the same thing. City face. Quick steps. Get in and get out. And the managing the dissonance between those two attitudes always struck me as well as something kind of inevitable and terrible.

Iowa used to have some of the lowest rates in the nation, but that number has since jumped to about 23,000 per year -- Chicago, the city alone, notes more than 110,000 per year); neither of these numbers refer to those who may be at-risk for homelessness, just those who actually are. A report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness cites that there are 184,000 more homeless people than available beds any given night in the U.S., and youth make up about 8% of adult numbers. Of that, 87% of those youth are between the ages of 18-24.

Youth homelessness is known to be hard to track, because it is both subtle and insidious; many disagreements exist over what such homelessness looks and feels like, as well as who should be responsible for addressing it (schools? parents? politicians? cities?). Numbers are tricky because youth are typically more transient in general, and often do not spend time at the same shelters or support centers are older homeless groups (for varying reasons). Still, the National Coalition for the Homeless states there are at least 1.6-1.7 million teens across the nation who are homeless every single year, meaning, they are unaccompanied children and young adults who are unattached to a family household and under the age of 25. 

And in 2015, a revised Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2015 expands the definition of who is considered "homeless" to include more youth between the ages of 18-21. This is a good thing, as it will include youth that previously did not quality for certain services and access to care; however, the downside is a potential depletion of resources for everyone all around.

My little sister is the same age as some of the kids we fed that night. She's never known what it's like to wonder about her next meal. She's never had to throw on all of the clothing she owns, just to make it through a cold night walking around downtown, looking for a place to sleep. She's never had to go without a car to get around, pocket money or any kind of money for a bottle of water or a snack or a jacket or anything at all, really. She's never been without parents, looking out for her well-being, let alone places where she can feel safe and just be a kid.

I've never known those things, either.

And the kids we fed that night -- I don't know their stories. Maybe they have much more than I realize; maybe they go without all kinds of things all the time; maybe they've been on their own for a long, long time; maybe it's a brand new choice as a result of poor behavior. I don't know what abuse, neglect, pain, shame, hunger or loss is present in their lives. 

But I find it interesting that, while serving these kids, because they were deemed "at-risk" youth, I found myself staring and looking a bit harder. As if their challenges and difficulties and scars would be more apparent from the outside. I felt surprised to realize that, oh, yeah, these are just kids. In some ways, they are no different than the kids I already know. And yet, that's also not true.

Afterwards, I had the natural sense of "we need to do more!" reaction that typically comes post-service project. I feel a bit of shame at the fact that I haven't done anything at all, nor have I really even thought about these kids for more than a moment at a time. I think about how many people come in and out of the yoga classes I teach, and I assume -- because they are paying for yoga, because they seem to be "well-off," because they have nice workout clothes, because they seem to have manners and transportation and homes and jobs and families -- I assume that they are better off than those kids I saw. When in fact, all of them could and likely do have their own stories of abuse, neglect, shame, hunger or loss present in their lives.

I still fall into the the trap, sometimes, of "weighing" what counts when it comes to struggle and difficulty. The truth is? It all counts. Some stories are worse than others. But it all counts, and it's all there, just underneath the surface.

Sometimes I feel like I'm the one "at-risk" -- obviously not in the traditional sense, since I have a home and a job and a full fridge and a healthy family and all the sorts of things "at-risk" people may lack for forever or on occasion. I mean "at-risk" in terms of apathy.

I think a lot about service, and ways to give back, and follow through on those thoughts about 1% of the time. It's easier to assume that somebody else has the time to care. It's more comfortable to reason, with yourself, that other people have more energy and resources than you do -- they can do the work, right? Nobody will even notice. It's a drop in the bucket; it doesn't really matter.

What I am certain of, though, is that it doesn't make a difference until it does. You can't predict when that shift will occur, and you may not know if it ever does. I admire scores of acquaintances and people who push and push and push to create change in their communities, and I often think: do they know how important they are? Do they realize the value in what they do? Is somebody thanking them? Or, do they feel like they're succeeding, even the tiniest bit?

I wonder from a place of vast privilege: what would happen if I pushed past that "this isn't going to make a difference" naysaying voice in my head when it comes to giving back to my community? What kind of standards do I hold myself to, and what sort of example do I want to set for own children down the road?

There's a fine line between self-care and self-absorption, and occasionally, I pretend like I haven't stepped over it.