“It’s Not Them, It’s Us” The True Face of Homelessness
by Angela Cataldo
If I asked you to picture the life of a homeless person, what would you imagine? The stereotype would be an alcoholic, middle-aged man living on the city streets. It is no wonder why high school students tend to steer clear of volunteering for the cause. In reality, only 38% of homeless people are addicts and only 44% are male. The rest of people struggling with housing instability are either single women, families with children, or unaccompanied minors who could use a little help from high school volunteers.
In Massachusetts alone, one out of every sixty grade school kids are homeless. That’s 13,157 high school-aged students experiencing homelessness on any given day in Massachusetts – and you wouldn’t even guess it because they are just like everyone else.
Diane Goss, a Braintree resident, started the education program at Bridge Over Troubled Waters in Boston and educated homeless teenagers between the ages of 16 and 21 for over a decade. She remarked, “When I went to Curry College to start teaching students, I didn’t find them much different from the kids I’d been teaching the past 10 years… they had the same insecurities, the same hopes and dreams, the same range of talents and abilities.”
She recalled a young girl who lived with her family in South Station. She would sit in the Common and “devour books” – even in freezing cold weather.
Another teenage girl, who played music in Harvard Square for money, lived in the streets with her dog in tow. She, like countless others, went to the suburbs of Boston to sleep because she felt it was safer than downtown at night. This tactic may explain the large homeless population at the local Motel 6.
Goss noted that “people are pretty much unaware of homeless children because they aren’t as visible.” Women and children may find easier access to shelters designated specifically for them, such as Project Hope, Abby’s House, and Rosie’s Place.
Out-of-sight should not mean out-of-mind. Homeless shelters of every kind always need assistance, and it’s easier to lend a hand than you may think.
Because high school students and people struggling with homelessness are both vulnerable individuals, only trained adults are able to directly assist with methods such as teaching, but there are countless opportunities for high school students to volunteer.
Goss suggests serving meals at your local shelters, such as Father Bill’s or Pine St Inn. You could also run a clothing drive at school; as Goss put it, “Teenagers don’t want to wear grandma’s sweatpants.” She recalled the joy they had upon receiving a donated box of clothes from the local university. A quick call to your nearby shelter to ask what they are in need of will be well worth your time. Shelters are generally always in need of unused socks, undergarments, and toiletries.
To this day, Goss finds the diversity of these individuals to be shocking. Some had catastrophic illnesses that burdened them with high medical bills. Some lost their job in the downturn of the economy. Some fled abuse at home. Some had low wage jobs and couldn’t afford the expensive housing in this region. “Any of us could easily become homeless,” she noted. “The biggest lesson I learned is that they are not ‘them.’ They are us.”
Angela Cataldo is a student in Advanced Placement English Language and Composition