The LA region has been referred to by some as the homelessness capitol of America, with estimates of over fifty thousand homeless people trying to survive each night. The long faces and cardboard signs have tugged on hearts at one time or another, and as sad as these images are, more tragic is what we do not see. The National Center for Family Homelessness estimates that over 1.6 million children will be homeless at some point each year. While these children are vulnerable to hunger, illness, high-risk behaviors, and violence, what they are learning about themselves and their place in this world is potentially much worse.
Beneath the cozy affluence of our neighbors hide hundreds of homeless youth, each of whom look for shelter every night beneath the bridges we pass over, on the park benches where we rest, or in the alleys we don’t look down. Many of these kids have given up on school, on broken or dangerous families, and on a future that does not belong to them.
Behaviorists in the 1960s stumbled upon the idea that a person, or animal, who has learned that they can do nothing to improve their situation, will eventually give up trying. Even if later, new opportunities for improvement are presented, the person has already learned that they cannot help themselves, and so will not try. Unfortunately, this belief need not be true in order to have an effect. For example, a child who believes he cannot spell will not try to learn, and will consequently become quickly frustrated when expected to.
We have all failed at something. Why do some of us believe we can get up and overcome, while others believe we cannot? What appears to make some of us so resilient, so able to bounce back from failure, is our connectedness to our environment, including family and other social groups such as church families or peers. In addition, we need the belief that we have some control over what happens to us, we can make decisions that will better our station. You might call this ‘hope.’
Imagine yourself on a long sidewalk, with people here and there shopping for new shoes in one shop, or ordering a freshly grilled sandwich in another. Notice, as you walk along, how people avoid your eyes as you pass. Feel the cold aloneness of never being greeted or asked how your day is going. What a terrible person you must be, that you can find no one to care. Suddenly, you find a place where people do care. Most likely you will not trust them at first, because others are only nice to people like you when they want something. But day after day of being greeted with the warmest smiles and bear hugs, a new thought begins to form. You are an interesting person. You are someone worth caring about. You are loveable.
An organization has formed in Redlands, CA, fighting to meet the needs of these young homeless people. Youth Hope works to provide a safe place for people to meet with peers and to develop constructive relationships with supportive adult influences. Through these seemingly rudimentary mechanisms, Youth Hope is successfully building within each of these children a sense of community, empowerment, and hope. Many frequenters of Youth Hope have begun working on GED degrees, obtained employment, or quit smoking and using other substances. These are the behaviors of people who believe in their future.
Dale Carnegie once penned advice for making friends that we should look to the example of a dog. A dog is always eager to greet you, no matter how bad of a day you are having. A dog is always interested in spending time with you, no matter what else is on the agenda. A dog will always love you, even when you forget to take her for a walk. Inspiring hope is no more complicated than being interested and showing it. Imagine someone’s life path being rerouted because she learned to believe in herself and recognize her worth, all because you cared.
Let none of us be afraid to unleash our inner puppy on a world that needs to see love.