“I know it’s me. It’s nobody’s fault but mine.” The gaunt, gray homeless man litters his talk with a repetitive, “I don’t know.” He sprinkles that line across his dialogue each minute like a filter.
Russell (his name has been changed) has been homeless off and on for years. His existence has been a bleak periscopic view of people shopping on the sidewalk, laughing at the store front displays, eating in fancy restaurants and staring back at him while he stumbled at the sewer level in tattered clothes and unshaven face. Unsurprisingly, he was homeless as a child.
Estimates suggest there may be as many as 2 million homeless children and youth in the United States. In 2013 about 23 percent of those in homeless shelters were children. This is an epidemic and according to the research, the figure is rising.
Russell was living on a hill with a view of the Mississippi River in Dubuque in June. His view was beautiful, pristine trees arching across the horizon setting on bucolic islands in the shining water. The rooming house he inhabited, the second nook on the left past the front door, was a den of trouble.
This week he’s in a shelter in Davenport, by the railroad tracks, whiling away his time hoping to save the money to return to his sister in Oklahoma City. He has known other homeless facilities across the Midwest and he’s also known stability. He and his siblings were abused as kids and he remembers when his father broke all the downstairs windows and his mom grabbed the three kids and pulled them all by their shirts, dashing for the car, headed anywhere safe.
He never finished school. His life skills diminished, he tried panhandling, pandering and theft while he was a boy, imagining he could help himself and his family. When he was a young man he was arrested for burglary. If that was all that we see it would be easy to say it was his choice that placed him in the criminal justice system, that he did prison time through choice and he alone is to account for his life. Yet, Russell did not choose the jeopardy that he was raised in nor did he begin to see himself as a loser because he decided he wanted to be hungry, homeless and so poor he had to scramble for a morsel of a sandwich when his family fell apart.
An education is guaranteed. The federal law begun in 1987 is worded to compel access and to prevent stigma. Children should not suffer. Kids should not be at risk for homelessness when they become adults. Transportation, records, and access are law and among children’s civil rights. Russell did not get that. The evidence of school success for homeless children today is witness that most are left behind. In fact, research suggests that school districts dismiss the homeless.
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Russell’s eighteen years of stable marriage and full-time employment imply he’s got the right ethic, intelligence and industry. The daunting barriers he was given as a boy stripped him of an immeasurable trust and direction that stable education offers. His “I don’t know.” appears too often when he speaks, because if he did know, had he been given the access to an education as a child, he might have seen the possibilities. He’d have life skills. He might have a home.
• Tim Trenkle teaches psychology and writing at Northeast Iowa Community College and has worked as a counselor at the Dubuque Rescue Mission. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org