I am hesitant to write this.
I am not looking for praise. I do not want praise.
I know I’ve done a good thing; the right thing, but – more than that – I’ve done necessary things. As many of the necessary things as I can do. And it’s not enough. And I don’t feel good about any of this.
Yesterday, I came across three teenagers living in the street.
I saw them setting up Wednesday night, couldn’t tell they were kids, and remarked to my friend, “huh, they’re new.” You might think that sounds crass, but all I mean to say is that you get used to the people who are fixtures downtown. You end up taking notice when new people show up.
Or some of us do.
On my way to a meeting the next morning, I walked past one who very politely asked me for money. When I apologized and said I didn’t have any on me, he quietly responded, “no worries,” and I walked away feeling worse than I normally do when I encounter a homeless person on the street and can’t help them.
On my way back from that meeting and on my way to another, I saw another of the kids sitting there, bundled up against the wind. I handed over my business card, apologized for not having any money, and asked them to come to the shelter if they were hungry. Moments later, I realized how difficult that would be for them (to pick up and move all of their belongings and cart them with them) and opted to buy them some pizza instead. When I handed over the pizza, the young person thanked me profusely, and I walked away feeling even worse.
I texted a friend and told him what I had done and that I felt even worse, I thought, than if I hadn’t done anything. I’ve bought plenty of coffee and bagels for homeless people downtown, and I’ve never walked away feeling great, as it tends to bring into even clearer focus all of the problems with the system, but I felt even worse about this exchange.
After my second meeting, I returned to my office, gathered some hygiene products for them, the energy bars from my desk, the contact information for two other shelters, and then my colleagues and I went to hand all of that over, along with the bread, peanut butter, and plastic cutlery (to get the peanut butter out of the jar) that I purchased along the way.
I approached and said, “I’m painfully aware this isn’t what you really need, but hopefully, it helps.” More profuse thankfulness. And then a third teenager, who I hadn’t seen in the morning, approached. My heart sank further.
Upon returning to the office again, I asked my E.D. what we could do. She gave me advice to take to them and I did. In the meantime, the friend I’d texted mobilized another agency and that agency mobilized yet another and the police.
When I went back with the advice my E.D. had given me, I found that they’d taken shelter in a stairwell. What I thought was three young boys turned out to be two 17-year-old boys and a 17-year-old girl.
Over the course of about an hour, she disclosed numerous things to me with the occasional offering from her boyfriend and the other boy.
They have troubled pasts, but have broken no laws.
The two that are a couple have been abused.
She is afraid to speak to men.
She is even more afraid to not sleep beside her boyfriend.
They are all drug users, with her drug use significantly less than the boys’.
She has been violated in various ways in other shelter/hostel environments.
The boyfriend has been beaten up a few times.
She seems to have some sort of developmental challenge.
None of them have finished school.
They are from another nearby city.
She is pregnant.
They are resistant to help mostly out of fear.
Whatever you think of their circumstances and their roles in creating their circumstances is entirely irrelevant. It matters not what mistakes you think they’ve made. It matters not what you think they should do. They are children and they are in a situation that requires caring for their well-being. They are human beings and that, alone, makes them worthy of any assistance we can provide.
No one can compel another to take what services are offered. And the additional challenge with them is that there are limited or no services that suit what they need for their current mental and emotional health and needs.
The agency for which I work *might* be able to assist them on Monday, but there are no guarantees.
Last night, I took them some fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as some fruit bars.
This morning, I took them some clean sweatshirts and socks, as well as some apples and granola bars.
This afternoon, I took them some chicken soup, some bagels, and some hot chocolate.
Three of my friends have also taken backpacks, a shoulder bag, fruit, and coats and other clothing to try to keep them warm and dry.
All the while, we are all painfully aware that it is not enough for them. It is not enough to ensure they don’t fall through the cracks.
But over the weekend, this is all we can do for them. I will continue to check on them and to take them what food and warm/dry clothing I can, but my financial, time, and emotional resources are limited, especially my financial resources.
If I had the money, I would put them up in a hotel to keep them warm, dry, and safe until our advocates and transitional support workers could get them better connected to the necessary services. But I don’t have the money for that.
Given their circumstances and their needs, they may not be able to be served by any of the agencies that exist.
And the vast majority of people just keep walking past them.
Like they don’t exist.
People with greater financial capacity than myself and my friends keep walking past them.
Compassion is more than buying a cup of coffee for someone. It’s more than good manners.
I have seen some compassion shown to these kids, but very little.
We need to do more.
We need to find a way to ensure these kids and so many more people like them don’t fall through the cracks.