A friend recently told me that people who want to help the homeless are interested in reading more personal stories about those who are experiencing homelessness. They didn’t know I’ve been posting stories about many of the homeless people we serve at Project417 for several years. It comes with the territory of being a small grassroots organization: how do you get the word out about the challenges faced by people who are homeless? If we tell their stories, how do we distribute them to the widest audience possible? We can blog about them, share them on Facebook, Digg and Reddit and tweet links to the story on Twitter, but there is still no guarantee the information will reach people who have a heart to help. Some are better at the storytelling than I. I follow @invisiblepeople on Twitter. He’s travelling across America on his Road Trip USA, telling the stories of the homeless people he meets along the way. See them at invisiblepeople.tv Me? I just keep trying to get the word out by writing about my experiences with my homeless friends. I’m re-blogging and expanding on this story – A Girl Named “R” – because it is an example of the terrible circumstances that lead many young girls to end up homeless, living on the street.
I first wrote the story after a volunteer blogged about “R” at the CSMurbanupdate.blogspot.com site, a place where students can describe their inner city volunteering experiences. She wrote about her identified as “R” only to protect her identity.
I met her on the first afternoon we were there. I looked down and realized she had prominent scars all over her arms…
It was particularily moving to me because of the young woman the student met – I’ve known “R” for years. I first met “R” out on the street panhandling with several other homeless youth. I soon got to know her better at a local Out of the Cold program for street youth. “R” has been street involved and homeless since she was thirteen, heading to Toronto to escape the tragedies that befell her in her hometown. She has endured a youth no one should have to face, and she bears scars in deeper places than just her arms.
I’ve celebrated birthdays and Christmas holidays with “R”, but she has no home to host her celebrations. She often conceals the scars on her arms beneath long sleeves, but even then, once she gets to know you, she will push up the sleeves to reveal her pain. From her wrists to well past her inner elbow, her arm is a patchwork of deep, parallel and crisscrossing scars, the result of self-inflicted injury. “R”‘s life on the streets is one of extreme ups and downs, not unlike many others who experience homelessness. Sometimes she finds a place to share with friends or a partner, but it never lasts and she is once again back on the streets. Her life is ravaged by drugs and her drug of choice changes like the spinning of a roulette wheel. Morphine, oxycontin, crystal meth and crack – they all have carved pieces out of her soul.
She has been in and out of jail, first youth offender facilities, and now adult jails and provincial correctional facilities for women. She has been to well respected treatment and recovery centres. When she inevitably returns to the city, (and I have witnessed this now more than once), “R” is a changed person. She is clean – she is healthy – the glow is back on her face and her hair shines. But it’s never more than a few days until she is dragged back under by the street life and the irresistable force exerted by the weight of her painful past. It is terrible to watch this transformation over and over. On release from jail for example, she is provided housing – the type of housing governments everywhere reserve for the chronically homeless, recovering addicts and people with concurrent mental disorders. Halfway houses they call them, or treatment centers or “transitional housing”. Almost all of them are located in the worst areas of inner city Toronto with drug dealers staking out street corners and visiting the houses to lure back old customers. There are any number of crack houses within spitting distance. The system always sends “R” right back to the very street that is trying to kill her.
It is not just a lack of decent housing that causes “R” to fall back to the street. She has taken shelter with loving and caring volunteer families who have opened their homes and asked “R” to be part of the family while she recovered. The pain runs too deep – her disorders inadequately treated – and “R” has to leave. That would be a time when she cuts herself again. She has told me, “Andy, I just want to feel something. When I cut myself, I can feel again for a little while, but the drugs…with them I can’t feel a thing…”.
I met a psychiatrist while I was working in New Orleans who works in Chicago’s inner city with troubled youth. We spoke about “R”. He told me the significance of scars due self-inflicted cuts: it is a major indicator of the victims of childhood sexual abuse. He told me that more than 90% of youth who suffer from “self harm or self-injury” are victims of childhood sexual assault and abuse. The illness is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a symptom of borderline personality disorder and depressive disorders and described as, “sometimes associated with mental illness, a history of trauma and abuse including emotional abuse and sexual abuse …”. A study in 2003 found an extremely high prevalance of self-injury among 428 homeless and runaway youth (age 16 to 19) with 72% of males and 66% of females reporting a past history of self-mutilation. [Tyler, Kimberly A., Les B. Whitbeck, Dan R. Hoyt, and Kurt D. Johnson (2003), “Self Mutilation and Homeless Youth: The Role of Family Abuse, Street Experiences, and Mental Disorders”, Journal of Research on Adolescence 13 (4): 457–474] .
In my recent post, What do you think is the root cause of homelessness? Part 4, I wrote: “A study by Heather Larkin of the University of Albany – shows the link between Adverse Childhood Experiences – ACE – and homelessness. From her study –
More than 85 percent of the homeless respondents reported having experienced at least one of 10 categories of adverse childhood experiences (ACE). Many (52.4 percent) had experienced more than four categories of traumatic events when growing up. … There is a high ACE prevalence among the homeless people in this study. Individuals with high ACE scores may be more vulnerable to economic downturns and cultural oppression, a person-environment interaction increasing the likelihood of homelessness. Service responses focused on identifying and addressing childhood traumas hold an opportunity for addressing ACEs before they contribute to homelessness.
I include this technical background because although “R” is now a young woman, she has been on the street since she was a child in more than one Canadian city. Many more people than our organization have become familiar with her. This would have included coming to the “official” attention of the authorities both while she was a child and as an adult. “R” is definitely “in” the system that is supposed to help her. Why has everyone been so ineffective in helping her, how has she remained homeless for so long? As a teen, “R” was labeled by society as a “runaway” with all of the negative connotations that carries. In effect, most people would write her off as the author of her own condition. Far from it. “R” is a victim. She deserves better. Hell, dogs deserve better than “R” has been handed.
I met her once on a street corner in Toronto, Spadina and Queen, where she was panhandling. She was in particularily bad shape that day, very high from her drug of choice at the time, which was making her slur her words almost to the point of incoherence and made her body twitch uncontrollably like a scarecrow on strings. When I arrived, she dragged herself up from the foot of the light pole she was leaning against and, arms wide, asked for the only thing she has ever requested of me – a hug. Not the little, hihowareyou hugs we deliver in polite company, but a great big, bone crushing, head burying HUG.! It always cheers her up. Standing to one side were two semi-official looking people with those City of Toronto ID cards hanging around their necks. One had flashes from a private security company on his shoulders. He was “protection” for the other – a city worker carrying a clipboard. They were part of a new task force set-up by the city of Toronto’s Streets 2 Homes program to reduce panhandling and homelessness. They were trying to interview “R” by asking her a very long list of canned questions. They seemed oblivious to her state, as if she could be coherent while jonesin for the next fix. After our hug, she turned to them and said, “I can’t talk to you now, Andy’s here. He saved my life”. After we talked for a while and I encouraged her to head for a woman’s shelter down the street, I left and went into a store at the corner to buy her bottled water. Her lips were cracked and bleeding she was so dehydrated. As I brought it back to her, the city social worker was back at it again, making little check marks on her clipboard survey. How those little pen strokes were supposed to bring healing to “R”, I’ll never know. She certainly deserves better. I still hear her saying, “he saved my life”, in the small hours of the night when I can’t sleep, thinking of the hopelessness faced by my homeless friends. I hear it and know in my heart – I haven’t saved “R”. She’s still lost and that hurts. She recognizes and loves the people who love her back, but why can’t we save her?
I wish I had a happy ending to the story of a girl named “R” to tell you. But I don’t. I’ve lost track of her in this patchwork quilt system that serves the homeless. The last time I saw here, she visited our Wednesday night community dinner in the Bloor Lansdowne neighborhood. She was happy to have just got housed in a transitional home for women right across the street. She showed me a small white bible in a lovely cedar box that she’d just received as a gift. She was straight – she was clean – she was healthy – the glow was back on her face and her hair was shining. She was smiling and, before she left, she offered up one more bone crunching hug. The last I saw her she was walking up Bloor Street with purpose and hope. Later that night, she got into a fight with one of the other residents of the transitional home. The police were called and “R” ran before they got there. I’ve not seen her since.
If you want to help young girls like “R” overcome homelessness, contact me here, or at Project417.com
And join the #Whyhomeless Movement on Twitter. Connect with me @canayjun and send out tweets on homelessness issues with the hashtag #Whyhomeless. Join us for our next meeting in Toronto – or start your own movement in your own neighborhood. The root cause of homelessness is about more than just jobs and housing. There is a brokenness in our communities that only your love can start to heal.
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