The Things That Matter: Advocating with and for Youth and Young Adults Experiencing Homelessness

The Things That Matter: Advocating with and for Youth and Young Adults Experiencing Homelessness
I pick up the phone. 

“I saw the news… ” Synthia says. “I just… I mean…” Pause. “It mattered” she finally says, quietly.

The news of the Massachusetts’ Legislature’s budget appropriations, including the $2 million in new funding for programs and housing for homeless young adults, has become public and is starting to spread.

“Isn’t it amazing?” I reply. “We’ve worked for a long time to make it happen.” I pause. “What do you mean, ‘it mattered’?”

Quietly, she repeats herself. “It mattered. It really mattered” she says again.

Another pause.

“All those times we got up in front of strangers and told our stories. All those times I felt raw and open and scared and scarred and judged and ashamed and proud…they were worth it. It mattered. It made a difference. They actually did something. They heard what we said – they heard what we’ve been through and decided they would do something about it. Things are going to change for people. Because they listened.”

“Because you talked,” I reply.

“Because we talked. And because they listened,” she says, her voice growing louder.

In 2010, a coalition of providers and advocates came together under the leadership of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless to work to improve and expand housing and services for unaccompanied homeless youth. At one of our first meetings with a legislator, he told us “This seems like an important issue, but I don’t think there are any homeless young adults in my district.” We took this as a challenge, vowing to bring the voices of young adults experiencing homelessness directly to our legislators. They might brush us off, but they wouldn’t be able to do the same to young people willing to share their stories.

At the time I was the Program Manager of Youth on Fire, a drop-in center and HIV prevention program for homeless young adults ages 18-24. We began training members to speak to legislators, educators, organizers and anyone else who would listen; we trained them to tell their stories and demand the Commonwealth to do better by them.

“The thing that keeps me on the streets is simple the lack of affordable housing. Its hard to keep a regular job when you don’t have a place to put your head, and without a job its hard to pay rent. And even when I have a job, I don’t make enough money to get a place or keep it for very long. And don’t even get me started on getting fired from jobs when they find out I’m homeless…. I am currently staying in a tent outside. I often get woken up at 4am when the tent collapses under the weight of the snow… Kids like me shouldn’t have to stay in a tent in the middle winter. Massachusetts can do better than this.” SC, age 22

He spoke. They listened.

“How did I get to this point in my life? Its easy. At 16 my mom came to me and asked me ‘are you gay?’ I said ‘no’ because I was not sure. She told me that if I was, she and my dad would still love me. Then at 19, I came out as bisexual to both of my parents, and my mom said ‘no son of mine is going to be a faggot’. … Being on the streets is a tough life – you never know where your next meal is going to come from, where you are going to lay your head, and even if you do get a chance to be inside, its usually from some dirty old man telling you ‘Hey, you can stay with me…’ but then he expects something sexual in return. You have a choice – either freeze on the streets and go hungry, or do what he asks. I have had to make that choice before – and sometimes the choice is not what I would want it to be.” SF, age 23

He spoke. They listened.

“One of the hardest things about being in this situation is feeling alone all the time – you feel that there’s no one out there for you. Its like walking on a cliff – if you fall there’s no one to help you up. You just fall. … I hope after hearing my story, you will be inspired to lend a helping hand – it doesn’t have to be a big thing. It could be a simple smile or a handshake. You could help program help youth like me. Or you could do something bigger and get this legislation passed. Whatever you do – just do something.” – IM, age 20

She spoke. They listened.

“I have never actually gone to a shelter, because I don’t trust them to keep me, my belongings, or my medication safe. I have friends who were sexually assaulted at shelters, and I feel like being on the streets is safer for me. It’s a messed up situation when the streets are the safest place for me to go. You can change that.”  - MB, age 23

She spoke. They listened.

They listened. They couldn’t un-hear the stories these young people told. They couldn’t un-see the pictures they painted. And when you can’t un-see or un-hear things, the stories follow you until you do something about them.

And they did something about them.

Two million dollars is a lot of doing something. It is enough to fundamentally transform the safety net that has let too many of these young adults fall through the cracks.

The message is clear – and it is not just that the telling of these stories matter. The message this budget proclaims loudly and clearly is that the tellers of these stories matter. Powerfully and profoundly. For young adults who have been rejected and failed by every system claiming to protect and support them, mattering is not something that can be taken for granted. Being seen and heard and supported is not an every day occurrence for young people on the streets.

But this budget says something different.

It matters.

They matter.

We matter.

I couldn’t be more proud. 

This post was written by Ayala Livny, a youth advocate and consultant, key member of the Coalition's Task Team on Unaccompanied Youth Homelessness, and former program manager of Youth on Fire in Cambridge. Ayala also serves on the Y2Y Harvard Square Advisory Board, helping to plan for the upcoming opening of the new young adult shelter in Cambridge. This post includes reflections on the release of the fiscal year 2016 budget by the Legislature. Click here for more details on the budget.

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