18 and Homeless

This homeless youth took shelter under a Vancouver bridge in 2008.

This homeless youth taking shelter under a Vancouver bridge in 2008.

When you were 18 being homeless was probably the least of your concerns. Do you remember what you were concerned about at 18?

I remember. I worried about finding a “cool” summer job. Saving money for college in the fall. Keeping track of my friends’ graduation parties. And I tested the boundaries of my freedom, bracing myself for the feedback when I got home.

One thing I never questioned – it never once crossed my mind – was home. Home was always safe, no matter how much trouble I was in.

These memories resurfaced this week when news broke of an 18-year-old attempting to abduct a 7-year-old boy. When the child’s 14-year-old friend intervened, the 18-year-old tried to claim the child was his son – but the 14-year-old pushed him away and the two boys fled home.

The 14-year-old is, without a doubt, a hero. His intervention prevented untold heartache. I am so grateful that little boy is safe. The suspect was later arrested and arraigned on charges of unlawful attempted imprisonment. According to news reports, he lives in a tent, squatting in a wooded area of a subdivision. His main form of transportation is a bicycle.

A question nags me, though.

How does an 18-year-old, who should be celebrating the end of high school with his friends and family, end up homeless? How did he fall through cracks in a system we assume should keep him safe?  Maybe a better question is “which crack did he fall through?”

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that during a year there are approximately 550,000 unaccompanied, single youth and young adults who experience a homelessness episode of longer than one week. Approximately 380,000 of those youth are under the age of 18. If we include younger children, the U.S. Department of Education found that the number of homeless kids increased by 10 percent in the 2012–13 school year over the previous year, to a record 1.2 million kids.

How do all these teens end up on the street? They runaway or are “thrownaway” for behavioral issues running the gamut from from rebelling against physical and/or sexual abuse to pregnancy, mental illness or declaring a sexual preference that makes their parent(s) unhappy. Others have aged out of foster care, which unceremoniously dumps 18-year-olds out of the system and into the “real world” on their birthdays. You can probably imagine how hard it is to complete the school year when suddenly you are responsible for your roof, food and transportation – all alone. Others have been released from juvenile correctional facilities and have no where else to go.

I don’t know the history of the young man who apparently attempted to abduct this child. But I suspect as the story unfolds, he will be a tragic figure, too.

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