In recent months we have heard much about homeless families in Suffolk County. The Department of Social Services has expressed frustration over its lack of resources regarding respectable housing for the poor, the needy and those in crisis.
Welfare reform has not helped the working poor or the marginal to manage. If anything, it has further shackled them within a human condition that oftentimes borders on the inhumane.
There is another invisible, voiceless group of people who are being victimized. They are our sixteen to twenty-one year olds.
In Suffolk County, if you are between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one and find yourself homeless, what do you do, where do you go? Resources for this population are limited to almost non-existent.
If you get into trouble, you can go to jail. There you will have a roof over your head and food to eat. If you are already a part of the foster care system prior to the age of sixteen, you have the chance of some arm of the welfare system providing you shelter and minimal assistance.
However, if you have the misfortune of being born into a very troubled, dysfunctional family, where do you go, what do you do? Unfortunately, there is little to nothing available to you. What few resources there are in existence are short term and not readily available to those who desperately need them.
Those few resources oftentimes have restrictions that eliminate many young adults who definitely need assistance. If a young person is eligible for assistance, there is often a time restriction. Thus, the opportunity becomes only a band-aid to an on-going chronic problem.
Too often in our community, we convince ourselves that our teenagers are the problem. They are often selfish, narcissistic and self-centered. A growing number of teenagers do not want to live by rules or within clearly defined parameters. So they act out and do what they please. A growing number of parents feel powerless and held hostage by their teenagers.
Instead of confronting these issues, parents take a passive position and let their children walk all over them. Communication breaks down and the teenage members of the family take control of the power and authority.
Take a moment and think about summer vacation. Who is in charge? Who sets the rules for summer vacation? What do you expect of your son or daughter? Are you willing to hold them accountable? It is hard. No is not a dirty word. Summer vacation should not be a free-for-all.
In the midst of that power struggle are a growing number of teenagers who could be anybody's son or daughter. They never asked to be born and are stuck in lethal environments. There is constant yelling and screaming. At times there is even physical abuse. Mom and Dad are well-respected members of the community. No one believes that this family could be so out of control.
In addition, the parents use illegal drugs and flaunt that in front of their sixteen year old. All through middle school, QJ put up with this behavior and borderline abuse.
Finally he decided to leave. He was terrified. He did not want to file a complaint against his parents. He tried living from house to house, but that was horrible. He hated it.
Embarrassed, ashamed, cold and broken, he reached out for help. He found a place that welcomed him and made him feel at home. They helped him to finish high school with distinction. He was determined to go to college. He did so with a full scholarship to the Catholic University of America. Four years later he graduated at the top of his class.
When QJ started college, he majored in the classics. However, because of his personal journey, he switched degree tracts and graduated with a BSW in Social Work.
After he graduated, he was going to continue his higher education and work on his graduate degree in social work. However, he wanted to give something back. He saw a job posted in Chicago working with a not-for-profit agency that raised money for cancer research. He started there at an entry-level position. Today he is their Director of Development.
QJ will be the first to say that the home that took him in saved his life. He knows that many of his peers fell into the cracks and have been lost forever.
His story is one of hope and unlimited possibilities. However, how many other QJ's are out there with the same potential but don't have access to the same opportunities that were afforded him?
My path crossed with QJ fifteen years ago. Back then I thought things were bad. They have gotten worse. Today there is an epidemic demand and few beds available for deserving young men and women in need.
These young people don't just live in our cities or in the fringe areas of towns and villages. They are walking among us every day. They sit next to your children in school. They wear the plastic smiles, say all the right things and do all the right things. However they are on the verge of human explosion because the violence and abuse are out of control.
Yes we have a problem with homeless families, but we also have an epidemic problem with homeless teenagers. What are we going to do? What if QJ was your nephew? What's out there to help him?
Although they have no fixed addresses, our homeless teenagers are not invisible. They are not going to go away and they shouldn't.