The missing step

Ellen Euclide

Last week, I spent all day searching for a shelter for a family. I called over 20 shelters; all but five of them were full. The bigger problem, though, was that this family includes two teenage boys. Only one of the more than 20 shelters accepts families that include teenage boys. This, sadly, is not a surprise. Among social service providers today, teens are seen as problems to be avoided. Instead, teens often have the most contact with probation officers and drug rehab counselors. They are not receiving the support that they need from the positive organizations that often claim to support families and children.

Working with teens is hard and they create many problems that simply aren’t an issue with adults or young children. The response of many organizations, though, has been to simply ignore their needs and hope that someone else will deal with it. Teens facing homelessness bring even greater baggage and risks with them, so I can understand the urge to avoid the situation all together. This, however, is not an excuse to give up on those who need it the most.

The shelter that I work at is one of the few that accepts families with teens, and we currently have nine of them in the house. Last week, the risks that they bring were pushed to the forefront of my thoughts when we discovered gang colors in a 16-year-old boy’s room. Homeless teens are highly susceptible to the attractions of gangs. Gangs, with a core of violence and danger, also seem to provide many benefits that fit the needs of teens facing instability. The promises of loyalty, protection and family-type structure are all strong draws for teens lacking a stable home environment.

Yet, the other places that have the potential to offer the same constancy and support with a loving core feel unable to deal with the risks — and instead ban high-risk teens. Shelters won’t accept them, schools expel them, and community centers would rather focus on the “good kids.” We need to recognize the needs of teens, especially those at risk for gangs. Rather than give up on them because of their age and history we can try to provide for their needs positively and counter the appeal of gangs. Teens need support, advice and understanding like all of us. Moreover, while finding their identity, they need a positive, caring environment.

The need for stability, trust and a feeling of belonging are very strong and can be fulfilled in a variety of ways. There are a few impressive agencies and individuals that work specifically to provide for these at-risk teens. The majority of the time, however, teens will be met with the attitude that they are beyond help or the assumption that they are unreceptive to adult help or too much trouble.

Those who truly want to stop gangs must look more deeply into the situations faced by vulnerable teens: racism, poverty, abuse and familial instability. We can and must, however, make a big difference in the lives of teens by providing an alternative source to fulfill their needs.

The safety of our teens and our community depends on realizing teens’ distinct needs; not simply ignoring or punishing them. We must support agencies that work with teens and urge those that don’t to do so. Libraries, schools, community centers, homeless shelters and churches, rather than probation officers and rehab counselors, should be at the forefront of providing services.

Ellen Euclide is a senior Spanish and economics major who is working at Su Casa Catholic Worker House in Chicago. Contact her [email protected].