I’ve been homeless on and off since I was 16. When you’re going from shelter to shelter or even just sleeping on the streets, you’ll often be approached by people claiming to help get you back on your feet. However, most times, people don’t actually want to help you. Instead, they want to paternalize you, approaching you with suspicion and becoming frustrated when you try to speak up to advocate for yourself. This is simply an extension of the general attitude in society toward homeless youth: that our voices don’t matter.
Notably, I have had this experience in a number of work readiness programs and internship programs that say they’re here to stop the cycle of, “you need experience to get a job but need a job for experience.” They lure you in with an incentive, usually saying you’ll be paid for coming in and talking about the program, all the while making promises of equal pay, fair wages, and learning experience in different fields of work. I, along with many others who have been through the majority of these programs in the Bay Area know that this is often not the case. In my experience, when I have tried to approach leadership at these programs to inquire about my pay, I have been met with skepticism. And when I try to explain that I am not being paid what I am owed, I am ultimately told that I am not a good fit for the program and end up being excused altogether.
I know that I am not the only young person who has had this experience. For homeless youth, the experience of being distrusted is almost second nature: When you’re just starting out in life as a teenager or young adult, the majority of adults think we are too young to make our own decisions. They see us as irresponsible, immature, and untrustworthy before we even finish introducing ourselves. It’s an unfair stigma that youth are not worth listening to when they bring up issues because “we’re overdramatizing things” or “we’re remembering things wrong.” It’s unfair. That type of thinking is exactly how bigger societal problems get started, which can become too set in stone to stop.
It feels like no matter how many people you turn to, no matter how much work you put in, and no matter how many people have similar experiences, you’ll still always be struggling with the same situation no matter what you do.
“In time, we may be able to make significant changes about how society views homeless youth as a whole.”
The fact of the matter is that while some youth just starting out aren’t the most mature people in the world, these programs are supposed to be there to help us grow into more well rounded individuals, and creating that distrust in people from a young age will do nothing but lessen their motivation to do better for themselves and for society. It makes you feel hopeless. Personally I’ve felt helpless for the longest time. I felt as if I had no other options besides work at a program and not get paid until I get enough experience to get a real job that I can actually work, or be homeless for the next few years out on the streets because most housing programs require you to have a job or go to college and I can’t afford college. I was able to escape the cycle by working for myself, but not everyone has enough income to start an entire business by themselves.
So, what should we do? When a person in power makes you feel like you’re making everything up, it can feel easier to just walk away. But our voices are powerful, and we are our own strongest advocates. You always have the option to go to authorities that work higher up than in a specific job or program. When you start a new job or program, keep every single document they give you and highlight the parts you don’t agree with when you sign the initial contract. Develop a practice of keeping your receipts in case you need proof to defend yourself during a conflict. Read every single word of every single form so that you have the ammunition to advocate for yourself if you are being mistreated. The things that don’t sit well with you likely aren’t sitting well with other people as well, and by speaking up you can save a lot of people from going through the same things you went through.
You’d be surprised how much just talking about something can change things. If you feel that your voice is being distrusted, more often than not you’re not the only one. I know that it’s hard when it feels like everyone is against you, especially when it’s a bunch of people who are older than you or people who are in positions of power. But trust me when I say that staying quiet isn’t the answer. Change happens when a groundswell of people start speaking up about any given injustice. Speak up about things, tell an adult, tell your parents, tell your neighbors if they’re willing to listen. Post videos or pictures about it online. The more people that speak up, the more things will be required and the more people will be forced to fix their wrongdoings.
Your voice is stronger than you think. If this story sounds familiar to you, maybe it’s time to use it. In time, we may be able to make significant changes about how society views homeless youth as a whole. We are not lying, scheming kids who cannot be trusted. We are people who are just trying to make it in this world, the same as you.
Marisa Gonzalez is a young writer and poet in the Bay Area. She sells J/K fashion, jewelry, and accessories on Etsy and Poshmark (find her with the tag @rainbowpotatoecat), and runs a snack cart (dressed as a cat!) that will be in local farmers markets and flea markets in the Berkeley/ Oakland area this October.