This is the next installation in what is based on a true story.
Names have been changed.
As winter turned to spring in 2018 and I got to understand more of Jonah’s plight, I realized I might be in over my head.
In his young life:
He had watched the tearing apart of his family. :
An oldest brother who was profoundly autistic and needed round-the-clock care.
Divorced parents at nine.
At age 13, watching his second oldest brother’s leaving his father’s home, also at age 18 to never return.
Being taken away from his mother’s care because of her own substance abuse.
And then, estrangement from his dad at 18.
Each night, I had a hard time sleeping thinking about all that trauma he had yet to process. There are many I know who have taken in shelter dogs who suffered abuse. Here I was, with no education, psychology or social work background, thinking about taking in a human. A rescue human.
Now, looking back, when I feel like a failure, I have to repeat to myself: I, and others, about six other families before me, in fact – we did all we could. Every time I feel that I failed him I circle back and repeat to myself: we could not undo in three or four months what had been damaged over the course of at least 10 years of abuse and neglect.
But we sure did try.
“Why should we wait until the end of the school year? If he is not happy in his current situation, let’s get him out of there now, let’s help him.”
Enter my helper. Sabrina.* My co-grizzly bear mamma. My … well, we had another nickname for each other, another term, I’m not sharing that.
We had met up at the Riverfront on a shivering cold but sunny March morning. With about 10,000 other protesters. March for Our Lives. The shock of the Parkland shootings were so fresh in all our minds. The wanting and need to embrace all our terrified teenagers by doing something en mass.
Sabrina is tall. Tells it like it is and straight to the point. Spiky short hair and bright blue eyes that shine out behind a collection of the most colorful, cool, mod, rad spectacles you could ever hope to pull off the look yourself but you know you wouldn’t get away with it.
I only had heart and Google at my resources. She was a licensed social worker, had worked serving her community for years in the non-profit world and knew who to call and what to do. Her son was also friends with Jonah. For years, when Jonah would ask for a ride home, Sabrina always noticed, no matter the time of day or night, Jonah would always let himself into a dark, seemingly empty home.
Before the March headed out along the river and Hart Plaza, we shot ourselves in a selfie the best two middle-aged ladies knew how. We texted it to Jonah.
“Hi Jonah. We have a plan. Let’s get together soon.”
Over the next several months, she was my partner in all this. God bless my husband for none of this would have happened, but there was enough upheaval at work for him to invest his time and increase his stress load.
So, it was Sabrina and I who were on the phone on an almost daily basis for weeks at a time, arranging meetings with social workers, school principals and administrators. Making doctors and dentist appointments. Two Jewish moms sometimes tripping over each other to help a kid who for so long had no mom at all to go to bat for him.
As it turned out, Sabrina’s family had also offered Jonah a place to live. They had a
little more room, a lot more room and food wise, did not keep a kosher home like we did.
A crash course in keeping kosher. Now there are levels of keeping kosher. Though my family is not the most strict, we do have separate dishes, pots silverware for meat and dairy. We do not mix meat and dairy. No cheeseburgers or Parmesan anything here.
We do not bring non-kosher meat into the house. There is a way to prepare food, to clean up from the food, that keeps the kitchen kosher.
Now, what non-Jewish kid who up until a few years ago had no Jewish friends would want to put up with that on a daily basis?
Not to mention access to a car.
A car. An 18-year-old teen-aged boy and access to a car. So he could get to his job as a summer camp counselor, go out with friends, have that freedom that only a car can give you.
What 18-year-old boy is going to turn that down?
Forget it, kid. I’ll still be here, but you got offered a car? Good for you.
There is no way Jonah is going to live with us after an offer like that, I thought to myself, about a week after March for our Lives.
I was getting used to the idea of having him come to live with us. More than used to. I was starting to get attached.
I had just finished an afternoon workout at the JCC. In the shower, I told myself, this is not about YOU. This cannot be taken as a personal rejection. He has to do what is best for him.
This is not a competition.
Let him go. You’ve got enough going on.
Let him go where he wants to go.
After towelling off, I checked my phone to see there was a text from my son.
“Mom, when will you be home? We have something waiting for you, it’s a big surprise!”
All what I am going to tell you in this post and subsequent posts is true. Or based on the truth.
At least that is what he told me.
Only the names are made up. …..
Every time I drive downtown on the John C. Lodge and get off at Forest Ave. he is there.
Right at the top of the off ramp.
Sitting with his cardboard sign: Homeless. Please help.
And, like most of us, all of us who have been in this situation, you try not to make eye contact.
You wrestle with your conscious in the heated seat of your car waiting for the light to change so you can get going, get away from the guilt.
But lately, I’ve got to wonder: how many people tried to reach out, to turn this person’s life around, how many pleads were there to get help, to seek counseling, until attempt after attempt, family, friends, just threw their hands up and just gave up?
How many times did he refuse to get help? What leads a person to the point where they are left begging for money from the off ramp of the Lodge?
“Mom, Dad, can Jonah move in with us?”
It was a sunny March morning, a day like it is today.
The icicles were melting and even though the windows were closed, you could hear the cardinals and even yes robins chirping with their promise. Winter is ending. Spring is coming.
The three of us sat around the Sunday breakfast table with homemade waffles and although I had asked him many times not to, my son’s phone was present at the table, his fingers poised over the screen, as if ready to text Jonah yes or no.
As if making a decision to have a troubled kid move into our house and into our life was as simple a decision as syrup or jelly.
“Woah” My husband and I both said. “This is NOT something to rush into.”
Jonah since Christmas break had been spending lots of time with us, including a family-only celebration dinner for my husband’s 50th Birthday. Plus Shabbat dinners. I had even sent him back to his current host family with quarts of chicken soup when he was sick. As a return favor, he helped along with my kids shovel our driveway a couple of times. I watched them all work together and then shoot some basketballs into the underused net in the icy darkness when the work was done.
We had seen Jonah’s talents at work on the weekends during forensics meets. I thought after Christmas break was over and the grind of school picked up, we’d be seeing less of Jonah but instead the opposite was happening. He really seemed to like being around our clan. He got along with my older kids when they were home from college, and when they went back, we actually welcomed the company of another kid hanging around to break up the quiet of an only child household.
The family he was living with across town since his 18th birthday had made the arrangement that he would live with them until graduation, and that was it.
So, there we were, in March, my son’s fingers poised above his phone.
Yes, or no?
Now, at the time, there was a feeling in this country of distrust. Of shock. After all, just weeks ago, had not a troubled young man in Florida, also estranged from his family and living with another family, just gunned down 17 of his classmates and teachers in Parkland?
But Jonah showed no traits of social isolation or violence. He showed no signs of bitterness or anger. He was outgoing. He was a student leader. He had good grades, stellar grades in fact.
He was just homeless.
And though he did have family and a father, they all seemed to be out of the picture. Financially and emotionally.
He had no health insurance.
And in his short life he had endured multiple traumas.
And he was not quite sure where he was headed to college. Or, since his father was withholding his 529, and he was not at this point 100 percent sure that he was getting full rides because of his situation, how he was going to pay for it.
And we already had three children to care for.
But here was my son, with a heart of gold, who wanted to help his friend. With his fingers ready to text back
And here I was with my Jewish values of remembering the orphan and the stranger.
So, after we cleaned up from the waffles, and telling my son that we could not make such a decision so quickly, I set to work.
I was not quite ready to take him in, but I wanted to help.
Over the next week, I dedicated most of my time digging for resources while wondering at the same time how a kid in suburbia could fall through the cracks seemingly with no safety net.
First, I reached out to local social service agencies to explain the situation and set up an appointment to see how to help a homeless young adult with seemingly no family support.
I contacted friends who were doctors who directed me to resources and agencies that could help him obtain access to health insurance through Medicaid. I also asked them what Medicaid plans their practice accepted. My first priority was to get him a thorough check up. At this point, we were not even sure if his immunizations were up to date.
I contacted friends who were attorneys who had access to court cases and could attain copies of his parent’s divorce settlements to see what the father was legally obligated to provide.
I uncovered resources such as the Ruth Ellis Center in Ann Arbor that provided shelter and services to gay kids who had nowhere else to go.
I found Affirmations in Ferndale that, when he was ready, was a place to find emotional support and advocacy as he began his journey. And I would have gone with him too, if we got that far.
I contacted Michigan Equality to see if our young friend possibly had a legal case of being parental abandonment or neglect.
I contacted Common Ground, an agency that could provide him with mental health counseling as well as possibly subsidized housing where he could live on his own in the summer and on breaks from college. Sure, I thought, legally he was an adult and could live on his own in an apartment, but how does that help him emotionally?
I bought a steno notebook and with each resource I found, I jotted it down on its own page, complete with a phone number and a website and a contact who had kindly spent time on the phone with me who was awaiting his call to reach out.
I left enough pages between each contact so Jonah could take his own notes as he and I would create a plan of attack to get the pieces of his life together before he transitioned off to college.
I entitled it the “Jonabook.”
Before we made the big decision to take him in, I thought this was the least I could do for this young man. Because of his age and legal adult status, there was little more I could do on his behalf outside of presenting him with the information and hoping he would run with it.
And, months later, I would be reminded of that when, on the phone with his case worker at Health and Human Services going through the hoops to attain his Medicaid card, he would gently, but firmly close the door to his bedroom in my face, as he mouthed with a smile, shooing me away:
I got this. I’m okay. I can handle this.
Lastly, I contacted the family where Jonah was staying to see just why they were no longer going to put him up after the school year.
Why would a family only keep a kid for a finite amount of time? What was going on here?
The woman said that Jonah was polite, considerate. There was no deviant behavior, no drug or alcohol use, they just could not work him into their summer plans.
But she said there was something.. off. A constant smile. A wall they could not get through when they asked him how he was doing, how he was coping, he would just smile and say everything was okay.
“He’s a good kid,” the woman said, who for the last 7 months had let Jonah live with her family at the request of her daughter.
Because of a desperate plea she heard from him at the lunch table just three weeks before his 18th birthday that he had nowhere else to go.
“He just needs help.”