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 an LGBTQ drop in center 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 Equality to see if our young friend possibly had a legal case of being parental abandonment or neglect.
I contacted 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.”
Think about the last time you were out.
In the produce section at the grocery store.
If you are lucky and live somewhere warm this time of year, maybe you were out at a park or a sandy beach.
All around us in these places, we can see small, tender moments of parents parenting their children, and you can tell a lot about the parent-child bond at the grocery store. When it comes to being a parent, it’s all those little moments – not the graduations or birthday parties or fancy summer vacation – that make the parent-child bond so precious and special.
And crucial to that child as they become an adult.
Sometimes you will see a parent or older adult, maybe a grandma or grandpa, bending down to gently remind a child to be mindful of cars in a busy parking lot.
Sometimes it’s not great parenting, like when fussy toddlers are given mom’s iPhone instead of a toy or a book just so she can get through the grocery store without later requiring a Valium. Not the best parenting, but parenting nonetheless. No judging there. I get it.
There are small moments like when a younger mom or dad will talk to their kids as they go up and down the aisles, kids happy and content or screaming their heads off . Tiny, small moments of caring.
Or, when the kids are older, parents and kids may be picking out together what to make for the week’s meals. Or what the team may want as a post-game snack.
At the park, a mom or dad may be pushing their little one on a swing. Cooing at them as they lift their kids high above their heads as they listen to their little ones shriek with delight.
Or, sitting quietly in a waiting room, a movie theater, on a bus, safely cuddling a child on their lap or supporting a sleepy head on their shoulder.
Every child when they are grown should have a parent or relative or grown up in their life that can look into their eyes and remember the small child that they were during those moments and cherish the adult they are becoming.
How can they not?
That’s not the case for some kids who come out to their parents. No, that’s not the case at all. And I don’t know how they can shed all that cut off their love and close the door.
If your child came out, could you still hold onto those little moments of parenting, and realize they are the same kid inside and who trusted you enough to tell you something that is the core of their identity and now needs your love and parenting more than ever?
My family happened to cross paths with a kid whose family, unfortunately, did not offer that love and support.
Some grim facts and statistics coming up here.
Homelessness in LGBT youth is on the rise. Of all the demographics of why youth become homeless, the group that is seeing the biggest jump is those who come out as LGBT and who are rejected by their parents.
Up to 1.6 million young people experience homelessness in the United States every year. Forty percent of them identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender), according to a 2012 study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law.
According to PFLAGNYC,
- Gay teens are 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide and 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection.
- LGBT youth who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence are three times more likely to use illegal drugs.
- Half of gay males experience a negative parental reaction when they come out and in 26% of those cases the youth was thrown out of the home.
- Studies indicate that between 25% and 50% of homeless youth are LGBT and on the streets because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- LGBT youth are overrepresented in foster care, juvenile detention, and among homeless youth.
Whatever happened between Jonah and us this year, and whatever will happen one day, I regret nothing, because I wasn’t having any of that on my watch if I could help it.
What I of me was not a statistic. What I had in front of me was a shattered heart.
On a warm afternoon in May, what should have been the beginning of a night of celebration for district-wide extracurricular success, I didn’t need statistics to show me what parental rejection does.
All the proof I needed was that I had a 18-year-old who was crying as he sat on the side of a bed.
The bed that belonged to my son who had given it up, along with his room to live in the basement for the summer, because this kid did not or would not live with his father because he did not feel safe. Or loved.
I had a kid, who after finding out his father had called me to have a rather unpleasant conversation with me, just upon hearing his father’s voice coming from the receiver for under a minute, that was all it took to set him off.
What does he want from me?
He had just been accepted with a full scholarship to three prestigious colleges.
I can’t help it.
My son and I sat with him on the bed trying to calm him down as he shook and cried. It took a full 30 minutes before we could all pull it together and get on with our evening’s plans.
I did not choose to be this way. I did nothing wrong. Why won’t he just leave me alone?