By Lina Rosengren
Having a home is especially important for children. A good home is a place where the family gathers and where a child gets the love, security, comfort and peace needed to shape an identity and build self-esteem in order to face the world and develop as a human being.
But what happens to children and adolescents who, for different reasons can´t stay with their families, or who grow up in families that have been evicted and have no place to go?
There are no exact figures on the number of homeless children in San Francisco but most organizations estimate that there are over 2,000 families living in temporary shelters, cars and cheap hotels.
Most homeless children feel ashamed about not having a place to live, and they’re often good at concealing their problems. Their ability to hide the fact that they’re homeless is the reason that they´re often invisible in the stats. None the less, they are there for the ones who are willing to see them. They take roundabout ways from school so that their friends wont know that their family stays in a hotel. The ones who ran away from home stay with friends for a while, and when that doesn’t work out they turn to older acquaintances that let them sleep over, often in exchange for sex or other “favors.”
No one wishes to be a bad parent, but parenthood is sometimes tough. Parents who face exclusion, unemployment, a bad economy and an insecure housing situation often experience great stress, and this affects children negatively. It is a fact that child abuse and domestic violence tend to increase in families that live under great economic pressure. Children can sense when their parents are anxious, and tend to worry as much as the grown ups. According to Compass family services, 50 percent of homeless children suffer from emotional problems such as anxiety and depression; 70 percent suffer from chronic illness.1
”The worst thing about this situation is that I feel so bad for my son”, says a single mother who stays in a tiny hotel room (130 sq. ft.) with her one-year-old daughter and her five-year-old son.
”Before he started school I could see that he suffered from being in the small room many hours every day, but as a single mother with a new-born it was difficult for me to get down to the park, and I was very worried that my son would get depressed and wouldn’t develop in a normal way.”
Homeless children come from different backgrounds but they have one thing in common: they feel a strong distrust of the representatives of society. Many have been in contact with authorities and they feel frustrated and betrayed by police, social workers and others who have promised to help them and their family, but who have not, in their eyes, fulfilled the promise.
It is difficult for homeless people in general to get the help they’re entitled to. But this is especially true for families with lower levels of education. Children and adolescents lack the necessary tools to navigate the system. They don’t know their rights, or where to go for help.
Many children and young people who end up living alone on the street come from families that are facing great difficulties. These children might have been subjected to physical and/or emotional abuse for several years, but usually it is when the child becomes a teenager that he or she decides to run away from home, or gets thrown out by the parents.
In a legal sense a person is considered a child until he or she turns 18, which means that young people have limited ability to influence their situation; at the same time, society places high demands on young people. They are supposed to behave maturely and responsibly, to turn to the right authorities during office hours, and to explain their problems in a correct and clear manner. However, most kids are not mature and verbal. And it might be too much to ask a teenager, whose experiences are both painful and shameful, to open up and give a detailed account of their situation during a first brief meeting with authorities. Yet this is what they are asked to do in order to receive the help they´re entitled to.
In some cases it might be necessary to separate children from abusive parents, but to place kids in foster families is not always the best solution. Supporting the family is usually the best way also to support the child.
A lot of the help available to children expires when they turn 18. However, as most parents know, being an adult on paper does not imply actual independence. Few 18-year-olds have a steady job or a place to live, and for the ones who lack economic and emotional support from a loving family, the pressure sometimes gets too much to handle.
Research shows that most children growing up in foster families lose at least one of their biological parents within five years. If the foster family understand that their mission is completed when the foster child turns 18, then these young adults are at high risk for ending up on the street. It is hardly surprising that depression and suicidal thoughts are more common than average within this group.
It is understandable that many children and young people who are homeless are pessimistic about their future. But their negative self-image must never be confirmed by society. Although authorities cannot offer the unconditional love that a home ought to provide, society can choose to stand by these children and see them for what they are: young individuals who, literally, have their whole lives ahead of them.
It is worth investing resources in these young people, the children and their families, because: although its true that many of those who have a rough childhood can still live a good life, it’s also true that many of the homeless people you see in the streets of San Francisco had a really bad childhoods, and maybe things would have worked out differently for them if they had received the right help in time.
Lina Rosengren is a freelance journalist from Sweden. She worked with Street Sheet for two weeks in October as a volunteer writer. Her published work includes regular submissions to the street paper, Situation Stoklolm.