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Release Date: February 12, 2010
It was the youngest ones who always got me. The newborn babies returning from the hospital to a homeless shelter as their first home. No balloons or fresh cribs waiting for them. The toothless toddlers smile broadly, wiggling across the dirty shelter floor, happy to be alive, oblivious to their circumstances in life. The preschool children are eager to show off their early reading skills or chase around a ball in our weekly children's program in the shelters. They start to show signs of distress living in a crowded communal environment, as they cling to volunteers for attention. The elementary age children show even more signs of irritability, anxiety and depression. But now it is the teenagers who are haunting me the most. They stand on the sidelines with their lanky bodies, wanting to be invisible and seen at the same time.
These children live at the D.C. General Emergency Family Hypothermia Shelter, the largest facility for families who become homeless in the city. Drive just a mile and a half from the Capitol dome, and you will find twenty families crowded into a cafeteria sleeping on cots and air mattresses because all of the rooms are full. Men, women, teenagers, and babies are sleeping like refugees in their own country. Unable to continue paying for a hotel or staying on relative's couches, they are in the intensive care of homeless services, escaping domestic violence, evictions, rising rents, job loss, and illness. The shelter is over capacity with 161 families and 316 children living in the abandoned hospital next to the D.C. jail. When our volunteers arrive to provide the only activities in the shelter, children emerge from the darkness of the former ambulance tunnel, where they play in the dirt outside the door.
Sixteen-year-old Jonathan is a polite young man with a sweet grin who plays football in high school a few blocks from the shelter. The family lost their home of 20 years after a medical crisis forced his mother to take off work, during which time she fell behind on rent. Since children are not allowed to be in the shelter unaccompanied, Jonathan does his homework most nights at the store where his mom works, while he waits for her to get off her shift at 10:00 at night. She worries that her son does not get enough sleep, especially when she has to go to work early on the weekends. Every night before they go to sleep in their tiny shelter room with no bathroom or kitchen, they talk about their day. They discuss in the darkness who is bothering him at school, how his classes are going, and how to keep his head up when the place he calls home is a shelter.
"I'm glad people take time to help us teens," Jonathan says. "We appreciate what y'all do for us." He is referring to the smallest of interventions; a modest monthly field trip program that we started this fall. Jonathan was among eight teens from DC General Emergency Family Hypothermia Shelter that our program took to the W Hotel as guests of Marian Wright Edelman. She gave us a table at the Children's Defense Fund's annual Beat the Odds awards dinner honoring resilient young people. We asked each teenager to write an essay about how they too are beating the odds. "I'm just doing what I got to do just to get by while I'm in the situation I'm in," Jonathan wrote. "I'm just not used to things like this. I hope things get better, not just for me but for everybody who has problems like mine. I need to stay focused and stay on my game to get where I want to be. I know it's going to be difficult, but I am willing to do what I got to do because a hard working mother raised me that way."
The teens confidently shook hands with dignitaries just as we had practiced at the bus stop. They sampled hors 'devours for the first time, and savored the multi-course meal served on white table cloths with candles. "Here's my favorite table," beamed Ms. Edelman, who proceeded to greet each child as they thanked her graciously. Their faces lit up brighter and brighter as the evening progressed, indulging in a night off from homelessness. When we returned to the shelter that night, Jonathan's mother had just gotten off work and was waiting outside for us. Her son raced around the corner, chasing another teen, as laughter echoed through the dirty, old ambulance tunnel. She thanked us for giving her son this opportunity and said, "I know he had fun because I haven't seen him smile in days."
The teens begged us to take them out again. On a sunny Martin Luther King Day, they teetered and soared across the ice on skates for the first time. It was their idea to ride to the top of the Washington Monument as they were literally immersing themselves into the fabric of their city, their nation's capital. The segregation of shelter life seemed like a distant memory as they navigated through DC's landmarks just like any privileged school group from across the country. Now they are busy working on essays about what they have in common with three past presidents in preparation for our tour of the West Wing of the White House later this month.
In the shadows of this boxy, grey shelter teeming with children and families, I keep stumbling upon a gold mine of potential just waiting to be noticed. These young people are not connected with tutors, they are not enrolled in mentoring programs. Some of them are not even in school. They do their homework on crowded cots while they help comfort their crying mothers and restless siblings. They get sick and miss school more often than other children their age, and many are several grade levels behind in a city with public high school graduation rates hovering around 50%. "I want to be the first one in my family to graduate from high school," says 17-year-old Jerome with a shy smile behind his dreadlocks tumbling out of his baseball cap.
We know the risk factors that children in homeless families face. We know their numbers are growing. Our city has had to double shelter capacity for families at DC General this year alone. But these children are still invisible, still not worthy of investment beyond being sheltered from the cold. For the primarily black children who become homeless in the same city as our first black president, they are offered a cot and a hot meal, then they are then on their own.
Navigating the teenage years is tough enough under the best of circumstances. For teens struggling to integrate homelessness into their life stories, we are expecting them to beat the odds with almost no support. Fourteen-year-old Cherise said that what she and Abraham Lincoln have in common is that they both have dedication. "Lincoln was dedicated to keeping the country unified, and I am dedicated to track." Now it's our turn to be dedicated to helping all children reach their potential, no matter where they live.
Jamila Larson is a licensed independent, clinical social worker with fourteen years of experience working in Washington, D.C. She is the founder and executive director of the Homeless Children's Playtime Project.