What it’s like to be a kid in jail or homeless

sparrows nestToday, I’m linking to a handful of articles that look at young people in the justice system. Their stories should matter to us as writers and readers, but mostly as humans—beyond a list of issues and a chart of statistics, each of these kids matters. And when they are lost, we as a society, as a community, lose, too.

The NW Sidebar, the Washington State Bar blog, reports on homelessness, school suspensions, and criminalization among LGBT kids. Anthony Gipe writes: “Nationwide, there are estimated to be in excess of 350,000 gay and transgender youth who are arrested and/or detained each year. While these youth account for only 5–6 percent of youth overall, they account for over 15 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system. It is also a startling statistic that of the LGBT youth in juvenile justice, more than 60 percent of those youth are also black or Latino.”

This article in Slate highlights the work of Richard Ross, a writer and photographer who’s been chronicling girls in the juvenile justice system. Ross says “Girls are the fastest-growing population in the juvenile justice system, accounting for hundreds of thousands of arrests and charges—often for minor offenses, like running away from home or breaking curfew—every year.”

In my own valley in NW Montana, the Bigfork Eagle reports that more than 300 children have been identified as homeless, including teens who live on their own—many not by choice, and many not part of the child protection system or foster care. Examples: a 14 year old girl living in the woods, taking shelter in a portable toilet or a Dumpster at night; a teenage boy who searches for unlocked cars to find a warm-ish place to sleep. School is their safe place. Some are still in school, but too old for the foster care system. A former church building was donated as a shelter for kids not in the system; a consortium of local churches raises funds for the project. In an April “awareness” campaign called “Somebodies,” mannequins dressed as homeless teens were placed on benches downtown. I watched the confusion as people tried to figure out what was going on; even with educational info posted nearby, it was too hard to digest, to understand that this is really happening.

A couple of other articles that caught my eye, from Crosscut, an online news source in Seattle: Kids and the American dream denied: A Conversation with Robert Putnam, and Trai Williams’ dream house for youth of color — one activist’s goal, grown from her own experience.

In mystery and crime fiction, all variety of characters touch on these issues: teachers, law enforcement, judges and court officers, prosecutors and defenders, social workers. Is your character a parent worried about her kid—or about her child’s best friend, who’s been kicked out of her house for dressing like the boy she feels she is, and not the girl her parents think she is? Each of these articles includes links to studies, books, and other resources that writers can use to dig a little further.

I’m big on showing emotion on the page, using emotion to drive the plot. What you just felt, reading these stories? Find where it resonates in your body—how it grips your jaw, makes your heart heavy, causes a damp eye or a tight throat. Give those feelings to your characters, and show us how they respond. Your stories will be stronger, your people a little more real. And all our eyes and hearts a little more open.

10 thoughts on “What it’s like to be a kid in jail or homeless

  1. I haven’t got time to read all the linked articles, but the topic does resonate with me. A former coworker had a troubled stepson (run-ins with the police, a mother who was an addict, his own drug addiction). Many of his friends were homeless. The coworker told me if you were on the edges of town toward sunset, you could see all these teens with backpacks streaming into the desert to spend the night.

    The Sonoran Desert isn’t the friendliest of places, being home to rattlesnakes, scorpions, coyotes, and mountain lions, not to mention the heat, so the fact that these teens found it safer than “home” spoke volumes.

    In Arizona, we have Youth on Their Own, which tries to help these kids. https://yoto.org/

    Bookmarking for a possible future story.

    • Good lord, volumes indeed. When the Sonoroan desert or urban streets are safer than home — well, it’s heartbreaking.
      Thanks for adding to the conversation, Elise.

  2. I had an attorney friend who was kicked out of the house when he was a kid and then lived on the streets. Years later, he graduated from Harvard Law. But these things live a scar. The Blind Side was on TV the other night, a wrenching (true) story about an overlooked kid who found his place in life.

    • Miki, thanks for sharing your friend’s story — he must have had a powerful drive. And I’d forgotten about the Blind Side — thanks for the reminder.

  3. While working for the kids’ department I did, on occasion, hospitalize a kid simply because he or she needed a bed. What a waste of funds. There were no shelters for kids who needed beds because the three divisions (mental health, juvenile justice and foster care) couldn’t figure out how to do it.

    • Projects like the Sparrow’s Nest look to fill that need, but as you say, that’s outside the system. Maybe that’s okay, as long as the need is filled.

  4. In my area, the Northeast, over 40% of homeless young people are LGBT. In order to tolerate life on the streets many of the teens, male and female, turn to prostitution and drugs. I’ve sat in on support groups with teenage girls and listened to their stories. We have few support groups for these teens, but the needs are so obvious–food, shelter, counseling. I will never understand why it is so hard for this country to take care of its own.

  5. As an adult, I am very aware that during my childhood we were very poor and a dysfunctional family. I look back and realize how close I might have been to being one of these kids.

    Whenever my child goes on school field trips or I drive kids for school or scout events, I always make sure that every kid is able to buy things at the gift shop or at lunch – sometimes treating the kids in my car pool. I fear that any one of the kids could be on the edge. Yet, every time I always wonder about the ones I couldn’t help. I do wish there were more ways to help.

    Thank you Leslie for shedding light on this epidemic. As someone else said, how sad that one of the wealthiest countries in the world can’t seem to care for it’s most vulnerable.

    • Thank you, Helen, for speaking with the voice of experience, and for your generosity to the kids on the edge. They truly are hiding in plain sight.

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