Two weeks before Thanksgiving, I watched a segment on Chicago’s WGN Morning News where two youth told their stories about homelessness. Something changed inside me, and within a week I found myself sleeping in the Windy City’s frigid November streets—by choice.
Different Circumstances, Same Results
Courtney, a guest in the segment, said that she’d grown up in Detroit, lived in the best neighborhoods and attended the best private schools—but her life crumbled when her mother passed away. Derrick, the other guest, proudly proclaimed that he identified as LGBTQ—and had known and been out of the closet since he was a preteen.
Courtney and Derrick had completely different upbringings, but they still both found themselves on the streets.
When Courtney’s mother died and their house was foreclosed, Courtney had nowhere to go—causing her to be homeless three times before the age of 21. She somehow managed to graduate from high school and enroll in college but ultimately had to drop out because she couldn’t manage going to school and being homeless at the same time.
When Derrick came out as gay, his parents kicked him out and turned their backs on him—at 12 years old. He traveled from state to state looking for shelter and eventually ended up at a halfway house. But when he graduated, he had nowhere else to go and also ended up homeless.
But thanks to Covenant House—a national nonprofit organization that supports homeless youth—Courtney and Derrick have been given the chance to live normal lives and are doing extremely well now.
My Urge To Help
I’ve always had a soft spot for youth—and I felt like I needed to do something. But little did I know, my chance was coming down the pike. Quick.
So at the end of the segment, there was an announcement for a “Sleep Out America” in which people who were fortunate enough to have housing would volunteer to raise money for the organization and/or sleep outside for a night to experience what these youth and other homeless people go through.
My commonsense voice said, “Um, what—sleep outside!? Nah, bruh. But you can definitely raise some money for the organization.”
I’m definitely down to support any effort to uplift youth but sleeping outside sounded like it took some guts that I didn’t have.
No, I Needed To Do More
But then, my empathetic side—the side that thinks that the only way you can truly help people is by trying to gain the best understanding of what they’re going through—took over. I checked my privilege and said, “Tanesha, you gotta do this. Just raising money won’t be enough.”
So, I did it.
About a week after watching this segment on WGN, my sister and I arrived at St. James Cathedral to sleep outside.
Covenant House made the first couple of hours as comfortable as possible. In the basement of the church, there were group activities, spoken word and musical performances, presentations from the staff, and dinner and drinks for the volunteers.
The majority of the time, I was daydreaming of escaping—but I stayed. And finally, it was time to retrieve our sleeping bags and cardboard boxes and go outside into the common area where we’d be sleeping.
The first hour felt like four. Worried about rats, night bandits and unnerved by the discomfort that rose as the temperature dropped, I couldn’t relax.
I looked over at my sister and others around me and wondered, “How could y’all possibly be asleep right now?”
Every sound or gust of wind would interrupt my attempts to take cat naps. But what mainly kept me awake were the nagging thoughts of someone having to go through this—and more—every night.
An Empathetic Choice Still Isn’t the Real Deal
My experience with sleeping outside can’t hold a candle to what these youth experience every day. They don’t have the luxury of being able to choose where they sleep, the scant comfort of sleeping bags, the support of two dozen people who volunteered to sleep outside nor the comfort of a security guard watching over them.
Most importantly, they don’t have a choice in being homeless.
I realized that surviving the night wasn’t a “win” for me or any of us that volunteered. It was a loss—a loss in youth innocence and potential that would be marred by the hardships of homelessness and a failure to protect them from adult responsibilities, decisions and consequences. Surviving the night didn’t “feel good”—it felt like something more needed to be done.
Covenant House reports that there are over 35,000 homeless youth in our country—youth that have been abandoned, suffer from mental-health or substance-abuse issues or are shunned and abused for various reasons. We’ve failed those youth by allowing mental-health services to lapse, the quality of public education to decline, lack of reform in juvenile-justice frameworks and most of all, by not being the parents, adults and role models they need.
As a juvenile case manager earlier in my career, I learned that we may not be able to save them all—but it’s worth the effort to try to reach some. We have to advocate for their rights—nurture, raise, educate, prepare and support them to be responsible and productive adults.
We have to do more to challenge homelessness and any issue that impedes their development because youth are the future.