By: Mary DeYoung
We rush past each other every day–in cars, down hallways, in supermarket aisles. For many,feeling relatively ignored in public spaces is normal, and often preferred. But to the youth that come through our doors, being “unseen” communicates that their reality is uncomfortable and they are not worth acknowledging.
As the Coordinator of the YOUTHfull Data Project at HQ, my job is to learn these stories that are so often ignored. Over the past few months at HQ, we’ve been inviting youth to share some of their experience with us through photos. They were given a disposable camera and asked to answer three questions through images: What does home look like or mean to you? What do you see every day? and what do you think the community needs to know?
Upon reviewing the images with youth, the theme of “more beneath the surface” repeatedly crept up. Members remarked how people just don’t understand what it means to carry so much with them– not just their personal items, but their experiences, their emotional baggage, the everyday challenges that are exacerbated by not having a safe place to call their own.Members wanted us to know that, beyond the surface-level issue of not having home, there was so much more turmoil and struggle going on in their lives.
One youth took a picture of their backpack. They always carry that backpack; I rarely see them without it. In the image, they had taken everything out of it, and the spread of their belongings–clothes for all occasions, all the food they had, mementos, notebooks, etc. –covered the surface of an entire table. They had remarked how it looks small when stuffed into the backpack, but is deceptively heavy. With all the stuff inside spread out, I understood why.
Another youth took a picture of a clock; they remarked that they wished the community would take more time. More time to see that they are more than the evidence of their homelessness. That the stares and sneers of strangers are just as damaging as being ignored. Another member talked about people’s ability to pretend as though they do not exist by driving past them everyday without a second look.
These realities are heavy. They hurt. They do not leave outer marks or scars on our youth; you can’t tell that the bubbly kid who is smiling and playing is also contemplating taking their own life because they feel invisible, unimportant, and like they won’t be missed if they go. But these experiences add weight to that already heavy pack they carry every day. And there’s so much more stuff inside than one could ever guess from just one glance.
We with privilege can choose to ignore these young people, to deny the complexity of their experiences, to push their experiences to the peripheral because they make us uncomfortable. We can go home to our pantries, our warm showers, our full closets. Surrounded by daily luxuries, we forget the pleasure that is having dry feet, an uninterrupted shower, the small, friendly smile of a stranger passing you on the sidewalk. When we do so, we choose to perpetuate the cycle of stigma surrounding homeless rather than interrupt it. This project has reminded me of the simple reality that seeing someone, acknowledging their presence and their humanness is powerful. It’s what we hear from our members again and again: Be friendly. Treat us like humans, like you’d want to be treated. It’s absurdly simple, almost too good to be a “real answer.”
Though the back packs are heavy and fully of more than just the reality of not having a home, they are also full of hope. It is important to remember, and this project reminded me yet again, that even in the most difficult circumstance there is joy. There is joy in having a cigarette and having something to share. There is beauty in the poetry that puts in to words the complexity of being human. And there is laughter in the silly moments or jokes that despite the weight lift our spirits. Our youth are more than just their circumstances and their pictures remind us of that. They are experiencing something many of us will never understand, but they are also smart, resilient, funny, creative and giving. Just because one aspect of an identity is more visible doesn’t make it the whole picture.
I can tell you that what I have learned through these pictures, and through these stories, is that the outside is often a sliver of reality. But it is all the stuff inside that matters and shapes us into more than meets the eye. It is all the stuff inside that either lifts us up or weighs us down, and it is all the stuff inside that is the part worth knowing.