Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Survivor Story

Before she was taken to *Iowa, *M.B. wasn’t all that different from a lot of other troubled teenagers. She was an eighth grader who fell in love easily and had a habit of skipping school. A girl from a single-parent home, rebelling against Mom’s rules. A runaway who considered herself wise in the ways of the world.

“I don’t know that it was anything that isn’t fairly common in a lot of adolescents,” said *John Smith, *Dubuque-based state Division of Criminal Investigation special agent in charge, who got to know the girl in his two years investigating the case as a field agent. “But she encountered and got involved with some dangerous people. People who certainly did not have her best interests at heart.

“Unfortunately I don’t think she’s the only one. I’m sure there have been many, many other young girls that have ended up in the same situation. This was just one that we know about and hear about.”

Not all those stories have happy endings, Kisner said.

Trafficking victims usually are young and poor, and the less education they have, the easier they are manipulated by traffickers, researchers say. A 2015 Croft Institute for International Studies report says traffickers isolate and disorient victims and use violence to ensure they live in constant fear. Pimps look for girls who are “gullible, vulnerable, misguided, who have low self-esteem.”

“They’re more easy to mislead,” he said.

Vulnerable 13- and 14-year-olds routinely are recruited to prostitution, said *Melissa Jones, a research psychologist who has studied prostitution for 14 years. “Thirteen-year-olds think they know a lot about the world, but they don’t,” Farley said.

Researchers say most victims of human trafficking won’t go to police, even if they get an opportunity to do so, because of the severe psychological stress and the threat of violence. And local police rarely are trained to recognize victims and bring them to safety.

M.B. was interviewed a few days after she was kidnapped, but — scared, disoriented and distrustful — she didn’t ask for help. Instead, she gave a false name and birthday. Police watched her pimp's house for weeks until they saw evidence that a girl was being held there and used in prostitution and M.B. was rescued.

Only by working together and actively seeking out victims can police successfully intervene, researchers say. In the case of M.B., that effort was spearheaded by the perseverance of local police.

* Changed to preserve identity

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Silent Terror

Over the years I have discussed several issues but perhaps none are as heartbreaking and devastating as today's topic: the trafficking of runaway youth. Human trafficking is when people are tricked, lured, coerced or otherwise removed from their home or country, and then forced to work for the evilest of people in the most reprehensible of roles.
 Human trafficking is modern day slavery and the three main issues are slave labor, sexual exploitation, and prostitution. Underage and runaway homeless youth are often preyed upon, especially in regard to forced prostitution. Many runaway youth quickly realize the difficulties associated with homelessness and living on the streets. These kids often try their best to survive without assistance but eventually life becomes too difficult on their own and they find themselves in dire situations.
 Traffickers force their victims to engage in these activities. Force involves the use of rape, beatings and confinement. Forceful violence is used especially during the early stages of victimization, known as the 'seasoning process', which is used to break the victim's resistance to make them easier to control. The goal is to dehumanized the victim to the point they believe they actually owe the trafficker.
 Fraud often involves false offers that induce people into trafficking situations. For example, women and homeless youth will reply to advertisements promising jobs as waitresses, maids and dancers and are then trafficked for purposes of prostitution once they arrive at their destination.
 Coercion involves threats of serious harm or physical restraint. It is a scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act will result in devastatingly injurious consequences.
 Victims of trafficking are often subjected to debt-bondage, usually by having to pay off food or clothes that are bought for them. Traffickers often threaten victims with injury or death, or the safety of the victims' family back home. Traffickers commonly take away the victims' identification and isolate them to make escape more difficult. Many fear for their lives if they attempt to flee.
 In most cases, victims are trapped into a cycle of debt because they have to pay for all living expenses in addition to the initial transportation expenses. Fines for not meeting daily quotas of service or "bad" behavior are also used by some trafficking operations to increase debt. Most trafficked victims rarely see the money they are supposedly earning and may not even know the specific amount of their debt. A sense of hopelessness spirals into despair and then embarrassment. The victim begins to wrongly believe they deserve what has happened. There is so much to talk about regarding human trafficking and its relation to homelessness. My next blog will continue the discussion. Here are some statistics to think about until then.
 There are 100,000 to 300,000 underage girls being sold for sex in America. The average age of entry into prostitution is 12-14 years old, both boys and girls. 1 out of every 3 teens on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of running away from home.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Dream On

This week we celebrate a man who sacrificed his life for millions of people who had no voice. Martin Luther King, Jr. dared America to dream and challenged it to reject a status quo that oppressed and marginalized those without a voice. In an era of violence and antagonism, Doctor King chose to actively and aggressively pursue and agenda peace and equality.

He knew the true catalyst for change was not wavering while most of the country was opposed to the very changes he wanted. He proclaimed a better day was not merely a fictional hope. It would take courage and fortitude; sacrifice and inconvenience would have to become a lifestyle, but equality could be realized.

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Simplistic Value of Safety

Recently, I wrote about different types of homeless high school students and the challenges they face. After I posted the story I was unsettled about what I wrote; it seemed incomplete and I felt there was more to the story. When dealing with minors, it is important not to exclude the human element. Various federal agencies define homelessness differently, and a particular definition caught my attention for a very specific reason: the simplicity of a theme every child craves.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), a homeless youth is "an individual who is not more than 21 years of age…for whom it is not possible to live in a safe environment with a relative...and someone who has no other safe alternative living arrangement."*

The key word in this definition is 'safe.' Safety is the theme that comforts some kids while the lack of it propels others into a world they never imagined. We use this word all the time, in many ways because it is multi-layered. Safety is a relative term because it is always defined by whatever form of danger we face at any given moment. There is no real absolute standard of safety because every person deals with different scenarios and situations that provide varying levels of danger.

For some, safety means rescue from a physically abusive situation. Others find it in a job that provides a dependable income. Safety can be an emotional environment, free from verbal or psychological terror. It could be a place where someone knows they have shelter and food. Safety depends a great deal on the individual person whatever is needed. So in the scope of the DHHS statement, safety means two specific things when it comes to contextualizing a situation that might lead to teenage homelessness.

The first designation deals with familial relations. In a perfect world, a person's family would be a place of unconditional love and support is found. Unfortunately, the exact opposite often happens and some youth are compelled to leave their home environment because it lacks the safety they need to survive. It seems a logical inference can be drawn that if more youth had safer home environments, they would not leave.

The next factor involved with prompting youth to embrace homelessness is a lack of a safe living arrangement once the decision to leave the family is made. Again, the emphasis revolves around the concept of safety. Being homeless has several implications and, chief among them, is danger. This cannot be stressed enough and I think it gets lost in the dialogue sometimes.

I've chronicled the dangers of homelessness numerous times but we often don't remember that youth make a significant portion of the homeless population. At a crucial time in their lives when they should be allowed to simply be kids, many youth have to focus on their survival because they are in unsafe family environments. How heartbreaking that thousands of kids might never experience the dangers and horrors of being homeless if they had a safe place to call home.

*Section 887(3) of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act

Monday, January 11, 2016

Behind the Numbers

The phrase 'homeless high school student' can be confusing. What does it actually mean?

*Nationally, there were 1.26 million homeless public school students during the 2013-2014 school year. Nearly 317,000 were in high school. Public schools are required under federal law to ensure homeless students have access to a free public education. But who are these kids? How can someone be homeless but still attend school?

The most important thing to remember is we are talking about real kids in real time and space. Always keep that in the back of your mind- these might be categories on a page, but they are also people and their circumstances are very real.

Our first category is unsheltered students, meaning they live in places unsuitable or unintended for human habitation. Cars, parks, tents, and abandoned buildings are just a few places some live. This is roughly 3% of the total, or just over 9,500 kids. It is a miracle any of these kids can concentrate on their school work while living in such formidable conditions. Forget about studying for exams or writing papers; living an unsheltered lifestyle forces the youth to focus on their physical survival.

Keeping clothes clean and presentable for school is a near impossibility. The physical aspects of decent health and hygiene can cause any student to fear the social caste system of school, but the insecurity is exponentially increased when a kid lives in such deplorable conditions.

The next category involves students who live in hotels/motels, which constitutes 6%, or about 19,000 kids. This is cheap, temporary housing and the family often moves from place to place. Even though the student has a roof and access to bathing, usually families must share a single room with a single bed which is given to the parents or younger children. There is no real sense of permanence or a reliable support system.

Another drawback to this lifestyle is the lack of guaranteed food and proper nutrition. If limited finances are being stretched to pay the motel bill, there is less money available for food. This might be better than living an unsheltered life, but it is still difficult to dedicate the proper amount of attention to school work while living in such a cramped room. The environment can be chaotic, making academic concentration nearly impossible.

Students living in homeless shelters compose the next demographic of 16%, totaling more than 50,000. Having worked for a number of years with Samaritan House, I've encountered many of these kids and seen their struggles and triumphs. Living in a shelter, or free housing dedicated to youth, does offer some structural parameters that provide students with a better atmosphere for studying. But there can still be a sense of longing and discontent.

An important part of fitting into high school is feeling comfortable socially. Even with shelter and food, a student living in a homeless shelter can still be embarrassed about their circumstances. It doesn't take long for news to circulate around a school as to which students are homeless. Many shelters require their occupants to adhere to strict time guidelines which eliminate the possibility for extra curricular activities, clubs, or sports. This plays a significant role in limiting the youth's ability to participate in things other students have easier access to.

Lastly, the most common group registers at 75%. More than 237,000 students live with friends or someone other than their parents/ guardians. This is described as couch surfing or 'crashing' and it usually means the student is trying to find a supportive environment because their home isn't safe. The student makes a conscious decision to leave their own home and sleep at someone else's place.

Think back to when you were in high school. I'm sure many of us had that one friend we hung out with all the time; people would have said you "lived" with them. But you didn't. There is a difference between spending a night or two with someone and moving in. This is usually temporary and the student merges in and out of multiple environments, never finding permanence. The usual length is about 2 weeks and then the youth moves on to another place. When options run out, the student is forced to either become homeless or move back in with their family. We will talk more about this later in the week because its often not as simple as it sounds.

So there you have it. When you read or hear about homeless high school students, they generally (but not always) fall into one of these categories. They all face unique challenges and should be lauded for their commitment to education.

* Information courtesy of invisiblehomelesskids.com and National Center for Homeless Education.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Freebird Ruins it for Everyone

Throughout American history, there has been a romantic fixation with freedom. Whether its the cowboys of the open range or depression-era hobos riding the rails, or the fictional Jack Kerouac crisscrossing the nation, there is a sense of freedom associated with traveling unencumbered. Have we learned absolutely nothing from Lynyrd Skynyrd (well...maybe that's a good thing)?

No obligations or rules; nothing to hamper a person's independence. It sounds adventurous, exotic, and even a bit thrilling. To live on one’s own, outside, and disconnected from monthly rent, job responsibilities, utilities, banking, credit cards, and car payments. Some people – perhaps loaded down with debt or with debt or with too much of life’s responsibilities – dream of living “off-the-grid”. Others just want to travel for a year or so to exotic lands, with only a limited amount of possessions on their backs. Basically, your world resembles Shaggy living the good life in the Mystery Machine without having to deal with Fred and the rest of the gang.

These are people who are are living on our streets because they like the off-the-grid life. They live in beat-up old vans or in tents tucked away from society. They eat at soup kitchens, bathe in public restrooms, and panhandle at freeway off-ramps. At night, they tuck themselves into their bedding, away from electricity, television, and anything linked to responsible living. These people are not homeless, they are "home-free," and there needs to be a clear distinction between these two ideas.

Unfortunately, these modern-day “hobos” reinforce a negative stereotype of people who are actually homeless. People confuse homeless and home-free people, and characterize the former as lazy, irresponsible, and a nuisance because they cannot draw a distinction between the two. Those who continuously and intentionally live this lifestyle give homelessness a bad rap.

Imagine having a chronic illness with no one to help you. You can’t work or pay rent; eventually, you end up on the streets. It would be disempowering to be called lazy or irresponsible just because you are homeless. Those who are truly homeless do not embrace such a lifestyle willingly and for the sake of living free and not because they are irresponsible.

Isn't it really society who is the irresponsible party? We let men and women who fight in our wars end up on the streets. We let kids who endure years and years of foster care with loveless families live in alleys or abandoned buildings. So is the case with women encountering domestic violence and seniors struggling with mental health issues.

We live in an irresponsible society.

Clearly, we should not confuse those who embrace a home-free life with those who are homeless. If they want to spend the next few years of their lives traveling through the developing world with a backpack and hiking boots, let them. Perhaps they will find themselves and return home to responsible living. But is does an in incredible amount of damage when those who are homeless are lumped into the same category. There is a marked difference between lounging on the coast in a VW van and huddling in a sleeping bag in an alley because there is no housing available.

Those who are home-free should not be camping out in front of residences or harassing customers patronizing businesses. We should not be wasting the resources of law enforcement, first responders, and frankly, homeless services for people who simply choose to live off-the-grid.

But for those who are truly homeless — whether they want help or have such difficult barriers that they do not know they need help — we, as a society, should do everything we can to get them housed. When you support Samaritan House, you play a significant role in affecting change in the lives of those who are homeless and have no place left to go. You help us keep out lights and heat on. You allow us to feed and clothe people who are doing everything possible to escape the cycle of homelessness.

Most importantly, assisting the homeless means providing enough affordable housing, and for those who struggle with personal barriers – supportive housing, for every person who is homeless.

Because, to me, home-free means providing affordable housing for all.

Monday, January 4, 2016

America is not a Song

Sometimes we become so accustomed to certain things that we stop paying attention to what they mean. I really like the song "America The Beautiful," but wanted to look at it through fresh eyes. Here is what it could mean if we examine it through the eyes of others.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain...

As I lie on my back, I can see through the gaping holes in my tent's roof. The sky is dark and ominous and the the fields surrounding me radiate a searing heat thick with insects.

For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain...

The Missions engulf the valley and sandwich the cherry orchards between themselves and the lake. I've picked fruit all day and my back aches and joints ask for relief.

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea...

This is my country, too. My grace and redemption intermixes with poverty and transience. I've experienced both brotherhood and bothersome behavior directed towards me.

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassion’d stress...

My shoes are tattered and worn and I haven't considered anyplace my home for years. Some days the weight of the world crushes me and other moments I experience joy over the smallest accommodations.

A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness...

Freedom is the ability to direct one's actions in an unencumbered manner. I've lived moment-by-moment for so long that planning ahead makes my head ache. Every nook and cranny of this Valley has both accosted and welcomed me.

America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law...

I can be content with little and this is the secret to life. I cannot control how others treat me; only my response. There are signs telling me where I can and cannot go and my résumé has more holes than a fishing net.

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life...

I gave my heart and soul for this country. I've visited foreign shores in the name of America and sacrificed the best years of my life. The toll taken on my life has produced scars you will never see and I cannot recover with inadequate treatment. So many of my returning brothers are homeless.

America! America! May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine...

I have nobility but it doesn't pay rent or hospital bills. My character allows me to sleep peacefully but does not satisfy the rumblings in my stomach. Success for me is a clean shower or donated clothes. I have gained much but divinity does not keep me warm at night when chills erupt throughout my body.

I do love America. It just seems to love me less in return.