On my way to a soccer game tonight, I saw a kid sitting on a bench next to the field by himself. Couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old. Didn’t think much of it.
As I walk by him, he wipes his nose and his eyes – he’s been crying. Not good. But — I’m not sure if he’s homeless or just having a bad day, so I decide to check on him afterwards.
After the game, I walk by the bench on the way back to the car and realize that he’s sleeping on it. Shit.
I haul ass to the grocery store, grab water, jerky, pretzels, a couple apples, and some gummy bears (because who doesn’t love gummy bears). I haul ass home to print out directions to the youth drop-in shelter where my clinic is. I haul ass back to the field, park the car, and walk over to the bench.
He’s gone. There’s an old man in sweat pants doing tai-chi and a twenty-something throwing tennis balls for his dogs, but the kid is just gone. I do a couple laps around the park to see if he’s somewhere else. Nowhere. God damn it. Twenty minutes – that’s it. That’s all I was gone for. I thought I had enough time.
When you work with homeless youth, one of the realities you have to understand is that each time you see someone could also be the last time. Knowing this is frustrating. It is terrifying. But the atmosphere of the drop-in shelter masks this fear like a campfire in a foxhole – it’s an oasis of calm intersecting lives filled with chaos. When I sit down with a client and map out a strategy for wiping out or at least de-clawing the tickets, fines, and citations weighing down on them, most of these conversations end with an expectation: “See you on Thursday!”. Many of the youth I’ve met have made more than good on that promise. I see many of the same people every time I run the clinic, and this brings me relief and joy. But you never know.
The first day of clinic I had a young man come in who had been cited for sleeping on the beach – he has schizophrenia, and while his medication keeps most of his symptoms under control, the sheer stress of his encounter with the police had left him shaken. He wanted to get out of the city, to San Diego, he said, where he knew some people. He was convinced that the City of Los Angeles was out to get him. In a way, he’s right – “quality of life” infractions such as jaywalking, loitering, and smoking in non-designated areas are often used as an excuse to intentionally target homeless persons and get them to move away from businesses and public areas. I tried to convince him to stay, of course. To get to know the case workers and volunteers, and be part of our little community. He squinted at me, sizing me up, and said he’d think about it. At the time, I chalked that up as a win, but I haven’t seen him since. I hope he made it.
The time that we have to help another person is often brief. It often comes down to a fleeting moment of opportunity. This is particularly true when the person you’re trying to help is homeless, because when you don’t have a place to stay, your life is restless. You never know when an unfriendly person or cop is going to make your life hell. Rest is risk – to sleep is to leave yourself vulnerable, defenseless. Something must’ve happened to the kid on the bench. Maybe one of the regulars camping in the park chased him out. Maybe the sounds of the soccer game were waking him up. Maybe the stone bench dug into his shoulder. All I know is that I had an opportunity and missed it. It’s frustrating. It’s terrifying. No person – no child – deserves to sleep outside on a cold cement slab.
But you keep trying. You have to, because sometimes they do come back. You’ll walk in and catch a glimpse of a specific hat or a specific haircut or hear a certain laugh. And they see you, and call you by name, and you lock palms with them and clap them on the shoulder. Those moments lighten the burden of the disappointments. And the possibility of those moments always justifies the effort.