I know that I talk about fairly devastating things on this blog all the time, but there are some things that I’m too afraid to talk about or find too upsetting–even me. I’ve been avoiding writing about child and teen homelessness for two years now. I have drafts of posts about it that I’ve never finished. Of all the things I talk about on here, I’m not sure why the knowledge that there are children out there living in alleys and abandoned warehouses destroys me so utterly.
I was watching an episode of My So Called Life–a teen show from the ’90s, that I never liked when I was a teen because it was too angsty and melodramatic. Except that it shows a lot of real life that isn’t easy–teen alcoholism, unavailable parents, parents who hit their kids, parents who are having affairs, teen sex. Just a lot of stuff. Anyway, this episode, “So Called Angels” was about teen homelessness and it just killed me.
In the episode one of the main character Angela’s best friends either runs away from home or is kicked out–it’s unclear which. What is fairly obvious is that his father is beating him. And probably because he’s gay. This character, Ricky Vasquez, was one of the first gay characters on t.v. and became something of an icon for representing some of the tougher issues that gay teens still face today.
Ricky ends up living in an abandoned warehouse with a bunch of other runaways while Angela’s mother gradually comes to realize that the line separating these kids from her own daughter is much slimmer than she’d like to believe.
And maybe that’s why we mostly pretend not to see homeless people. Because we know deep down that it’s not so much that separates us from them. A tiny shift of fate and we could be homeless, too. But getting out again once you are is so hard. So very very hard.
I’ve known a lot of homeless people. And a few who once were but managed to climb out of it. Most of them, including males, were raped at least once when they lived on the streets. Most of them got sick a lot. Had next to nothing to eat. Couldn’t sleep through a night for worrying that the cops would bust them or another homeless person would steal their only pair of shoes.
There are too many reasons that people in general end up homeless, much less kids. But a big one still with teens is being gay and having their parents kick them out. In the episode, a church group took all the kids from the warehouse into the church for Christmas. I had a horrifying thought that this avenue of help for hurting kids might be denied to many homeless kids because they’re obviously gay, as Ricky Vasquez is. I’d like to think better of people than that, but it’s hard to tell. Gay teens are still the highest demographic of homeless teens. And the most at risk to kill themselves.
I have less to say that’s useful about all of this than usual, even. I don’t even have any suggestions for what we might start to do. I don’t know what books can do to help this problem. I do know a few homeless folks who read quite a bit but they have to steal books from the library (they always bring them back.) You see, you can’t get a library card if you don’t have an address (nor can you register to vote.) And you can’t buy books obviously, and you’re not nearly as likely to be in school. And you can’t go to book stores because you’ll be run off because you aren’t likely to be clean, cus it turns out that it’s really hard to bathe regularly and well if you don’t have a home, and even if you go to the Y and bathe or use the showers at the beach, you probably don’t have clean clothes.
So all of this is to say, we aren’t going to solve homelessness with books. Unless we somehow manage to make books more generally available to homeless teens. But we can raise awareness. I know of three books for teens and kids about homelessness. Two of them are very good. One of them is dreadful. Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting is a picture book about a little boy and his dad who live in an airport. It’s a sad book but not unbearably so. And it doesn’t have a nice, pat happy ending.
That is what makes the Middle Grade novel Also Known as Harper such a dismal failure in my opinion. I don’t want to trash any book, because writing is really really hard. But the ease with which the young protagonist takes her situation in hand and saves the day, and the miraculous way a home just happens on her family just makes this book really irresponsible in my opinion because it downplays the seriousness of homelessness to such an extent that it almost mocks it. And if I, God forbid, were a homeless teen reading this book, I think I would just want to die because there is no way my life would just sort itself out so neatly. And I would feel so unbelievably lazy and worthless. Nor do I think that the book works to raise awareness for non-homeless kids because it trivializes it to such an extent that it makes it seem like it’s not even something to get worked up over.
The one YA novel I have read about homelessness, Theories of Relativity, is just the opposite. I picked it up by accident because the title made me think it was about Einstein (yes, I am a total geek if you didn’t already know that.) This book works because it doesn’t trivialize the subject. It shows how hard it is for this teen to get help, to get work, to pull his life together. It shows the real barriers that homeless teens face. But it’s not hopeless. This kid does actually better his situation, but by the end of the book it’s still not perfect–that wouldn’t be realistic–but he’s gone far enough to give both homeless teens who might find this book and teens who aren’t but are learning about it hope. Again, I don’t know how homeless kids manage to get their hands on books very often, but I urge anyone who has a collection of books to include this novel in their collection. It actually has some resources that a teen might look into, it’s realistic, but it has hope, and maybe hope would be enough to keep a kid going for another day.
I also just remembered that one of my favorite writers, Martine Leavitt, has a new novel in verse out that deals with homelessness, My Book of Life by Angel. It is about a street girl who ends up being pimped out as a prostitute, another devastating reality for homeless teens. I have heard her read several sections from this book that were amazing, but I haven’t read the whole thing yet. She’s is a remarkable writer. Her novels Tom Finder and Heck Superhero also deal with homelessness.
And as I type this, I remember another wonderful novel in verse by Sharon Darrow called Trash. This one, I’m fairly certain is out of print, but if you can procure a copy, it’s worth it. It’s about sibling runaways from the foster-care system, another common cause of childhood homelessness. I think the title is a play on the fact that we treat these kids like they don’t exist, like trash. I don’t know if I’d give this novel to a homeless kid, but maybe. It’s beautiful, and devastating ultimately, and while not being as closely tuned into what homeless kids really go through on a day to day basis, it makes a real statement about homelessness, and it gives these kids their own worth, beauty, and dignity. I would definitely recommend it as a consciousness-raising tool for non-homeless teens.
Anyway, that’s all I have for now. If anyone else knows any good books about homelessness or has any suggestions, I would love to hear them.