I’d like you to think for a moment about the last homeless person you happened to encounter. Ask yourself: What was his or her story? Do you know?
Now I’d like you to think about the last 18 to 21 year-old you met in any walk of life — from a middle class or wealthy family, any high school grad will do. Ask yourself: Was this young adult ready to go out into the world completely on his or her own? Do you know?
Now consider that every year our foster care system emancipates thousands of 18 year-olds, presenting them with the rights and responsibilities of full independent adulthood. They are on their own to go to college, get a job, find an apartment, obtain credit, feed themselves, clothe themselves, seek medical care and insurance, all of the things that you and I learned to do over a period of time that likely transcended our 18th birthdays.
What do you think the chances are that a young adult released from the foster care system can sign a lease without credit, get a job without references, obtain medical insurance without an address, or attend college without a bank account? If you answered “not very good,” you’re starting to get the picture.
What happens if that 18 to 21 year-old goes out into the world without any support system of any kind? Imagine the worst because that’s what happens. Nowhere to live, no legal income, no reason to worry about the future because all that matters is surviving the present — will hungry, cold, isolated people do desperate and horrible things if the only thing that matters is surviving the present and no one cares if they make it through the day? You bet they will. You and I would, too.
Now I would like you to look at the faces in the picture at the top of this page. These are some of the participants and staff in the current cohort of the Transitional Independent Living Program (TILP) at Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services. Yeah, that sometime city slicker in the cowboy hat on the right is yours truly hosting the 8th Annual Celebrating Children Gala we recently held at the Autry Museum of the American West. We raised about $200,000 to support this program. The rest of the smiling faces are young adults who will not be homeless and the staff who guide them to independence. With our love and assistance, these wonderful people will further their education, get their first apartment, find employment, and build a foundation that will keep them independent for a lifetime.
Need some further convincing? Watch the video below. You will see specifically how “3 Paths to Adulthood” helped three exemplary individuals navigate from negativity to optimism. Their stories are the narratives of three strong people who didn’t become homeless and never will. Their stories are unfolding like yours and mine. They are making their way through life on their own. They have dreams, they have families, and they have hope. They stand on their feet with pride and humility. They shake your hand and look you in the eye as a peer. One just bought a home!
They make me smile and they make me cry. If only we could help more people like them, we wouldn’t see nearly as many homeless people on the street. We could play a role in their lives and alter each story for the better. Their stories will always be their own, but we would be a small part of them and they would never forget us. We would never forget them.
We have a choice: Help bridge the gap between age 18 and 21 where government assistance is not available, or let these young adults tackle the immense difficulties of our world on their own and fail as any of us would. It’s not hard to understand why our TILP is vital and in the community’s interest. It makes economic sense. It makes human sense. It takes a story with an otherwise cruel outcome and turns it into a happy ending for everyone involved.
It doesn’t happen without a lot of hard work and commitment, but it happens. That’s why we held this year’s Celebrating Children to bolster this mission and attack homelessness through proactive guidance and direction. It’s much less expensive than getting someone off the street, and much more sustainable for an entire lifetime. It works. Watch the video! I promise you it works.
If you’d like to join in supporting our work please visit Hathaway-Sycamores.org.
And the next time you see a homeless person, take a moment and ask for his or her story. You might be surprised to learn they didn’t have to be on the street. Most of the time, they simply couldn’t find another path. We’ll help them as well, but let’s start by keeping them off the street. We know how to do that. Really, we do.
This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.