Scott O’Neil, one of the Sleep Out participants, shared this thought-provoking message that he sent his co-workers at Dealer.com:
Surprisingly I’ve found myself dreading the Spectrum Sleepout. At first it started out as “sure sounds like an adventure” and has progressed to dread for 2 reasons 1) the weather has remained cold 2) this means I have to place myself in the shoes of a homeless person, albeit within a fabricated environment where I have a warm sleeping bag and the knowledge that when it’s over I will have the luxury of a warm shower and a heated office. I find the thought of homelessness heartbreaking and the thought of homeless kids even more so. I’m not sure I really want to know how bad it is because then I’ll have to start doing something about it.
I’m sure most people can make it through 1 night, but when there is no known end and few means to find an end it must feel impossible. And when you’re still a youth and haven’t learned of all the options that may exist it must feel hopeless. While I’m warming up on Friday morning those less fortunate get to wake up and repeat the whole process.
The other area of dread is that I suspect I’ll no longer be able to walk past a homeless person and essentially pretend I didn’t see them or that I don’t have “spare change.” Not that I want to pretend someone is invisible but let’s face it, many of us end up doing this. How do you know who will use the change wisely and who won’t? How do you know when/if a small act of help might initiate a new “day 1” for the person and inspire them to move in a more fruitful direction? This past fall our kids gave some money to a homeless man in Scotland who was sitting on the street with his dog. Then when the homeless man thought we weren’t looking he pulled out a cell phone and started texting someone.
I’m sure we’ve all struggled with the same questions. The Director of Spectrum said that some amount of homelessness comes down to poor choices, but most never had a real chance. Most have made tough decisions on top of that, but those decisions only made the bad situation worse. They grew up in abusive families, were put into the Foster Care system and quickly learned to not trust adults as they bounced from broken promise to broken promise. Their image of self-worth at these young ages in no doubt plummeted. He told us a story of how Vermont Senators interviewed some of the kids in their program a few years back and asked the question “if you could have made different choices 10 years ago what would they have been?” Kid after kid repeated a similar story of “well 10 years ago I was 8 yrs old. My Dad would get drunk each night and beat my Mother until she passed out. Then he’d beat me. A few years later Dad went to prison and died and my Mother got addicted to drugs”. Apparently the Senators were pretty humbled with the severity of the answers.
The Director told us a story about the percentage of donations to colleges, institutes etc compared to the amount given to the neediest. A few years back Middlebury College received an anonymous donation of $50 Million Dollars and he questioned the parity gap as to why organizations such as Spectrum have to scratch by with all they do. His story got picked up by Fortune Magazine and drew significant interest.
What I found fascinating about Spectrum is they are not just a homeless shelter for youth. They provide family services and “get on your feet” planning through a vast network of connected organizations. They expect previously homeless youth to stay with them as long as they need to (years). They are free to leave their belongings on their bed during the day and they return night after night. After a number of months of just staying there they begin the planning process with the young adults towards stability and independence. From an education standpoint they partner with an adult learning organization to reach GED status. They partner with CCV to get the kids into college. For those that do well at CCV they work with UVM to get them admitted. This is not a shelter it is a second chance, or in most cases a first chance at normalcy. Graduates of their program are currently in law school, medical school, trade schools etc. Their goal is to provide a safe environment for the youths to heal through services and then to create a mutual plan towards positive independence. The young adults are expected to either have work or be searching for work. Once they find work they are pressed to find better work. Once they find better work they are pressed to learn a trade or increase their education and find long lasting career options. Once they are stable and making progress they can move into a single dorm style room where they have their own key to the door. This is clearly not just a “place to crash”.