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Homeless: Seeing Past the Label to the Person, a guest post by Catherine Linka

A few months ago, I was upset when a writer friend was interviewed on local TV news about her picture book, and the banner across the screen read “Homeless Woman Writes Children’s Book.” 

My friend wrote from her experience as a teen living in a shelter, but in the ten years since she acquired a master’s from a major university, a significant position with a non-profit, a nice apartment and a long-term romantic relationship. I realize that headlines are designed to telegraph what’s newsworthy about a story, but by labeling her a “homeless woman” the editor negated what is true about her and her life now.

I thought a lot about labels while working on my new YA novel, because a central theme of What I Want You to See is perception, meaning how we want others to see us and how our assumptions and emotions blind us to seeing people and situations clearly. 

My protagonist, Sabine Reyes is a first year at an art institute in Los Angeles. The recipient of a prestigious scholarship that affords her a cozy rented room, Sabine is careful not to let anyone know she spent the spring and summer living in her car. Sabine’s certain that if she does, she’ll be labeled “that homeless girl” instead of being seen as a highly talented artist with an unlimited future.

Labels like “homeless” reduce a person to a stereotype and weigh them down with assumptions that don’t allow for their individuality and run counter to their self-identity.

Kara Yorio addressed this last year in her School Library Journal feature  “In Plain Sight, Supporting Teens Who Are Homeless.” She noted that educators often assume that teens experiencing homelessness are damaged, traumatized, or emotionally unstable, but the teens they’re trying to help want to seen and treated as normal kids in challenging situations. 

It’s not surprising that educators might assume the worse, since the population of people experiencing homelessness who are most visible in our communities and the media are those living on the street and struggling with mental or physical illness, drug, or alcohol addiction.

But in California, a lack of affordable housing has pushed tens of thousands of two-earner families and retirees out of their homes, and prevents college students and part-time workers from finding places to rent. Like my protagonist, many of these individuals and families hide their homelessness as they go to work or attend classes, embarrassed by what people might think about them and their families.

Even though their circumstances are unstable, we shouldn’t assume that a teen or family is unstable. When my friend lost her home, her dad provided the strength and love she needed to feel safe. One line from my book which she felt expressed this well is: “People think home is where you live, but it’s not. It’s where you’re loved.” 

As the affordable housing crisis continues, we need to reconsider how we think and speak about students and families who lack permanent housing. Many of these families will find stable housing and their homelessness will be temporary. If we label them as “homeless” we focus on one period in their lives, possibly the worst, and we fail to allow for how teens, young adults, and people of all ages may continue to grow and change. 

Maybe we can begin by retiring “homeless” as an adjective to describe someone. Homeless isn’t who a person is. It’s not an identity, it’s a circumstance. Since I began writing this novel, I’ve made a conscious effort to change how I speak and to replace phrases like ‘homeless students’ with ones that reflect these students’ circumstances better such as ‘students experiencing homelessness.’ 

My friend would add that we should reconsider using “the” before “homeless.” Even when we mean well, such as when we implore others to “Help Feed the Homeless,” we lump people together in a group, erasing their individual identity. Perhaps, we could try dropping “homeless” as a noun altogether.

People, young people especially, want to be seen the way they identify. If we look beyond the label to the individual, engage them by asking about their interests, hobbies, friends, and dreams, we can show them that we see them as a whole person. We can chip away at the stigma of homelessness one person at a time.

Meet Catherine Linka

Photo credit: Nicola Borland Photography

Catherine Linka has been immersed in books her whole life, most recently as a writer and bookseller. She’s the author of the young adult novel WHAT I WANT YOU TO SEE as well as the dystopian duology A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. Catherine lives in Southern California and watches hawks and hummingbirds when she should be writing. 

Website: www.catherinelinka.com

Facebook: @catherinelinkaauthor

Twitter: @cblinka

Instagram: catherine_linka

About What I Want You to See by Catherine Linka

Winning a scholarship to California’s most prestigious art school seems like a fairy tale ending to Sabine Reye’s awful senior year. After losing both her mother and her home, Sabine longs for a place where she belongs.

But the cutthroat world of visual arts is nothing like what Sabine had imagined. Colin Krell, the renowned faculty member whom she had hoped would mentor her, seems to take merciless delight in tearing down her best work-and warns her that she’ll lose the merit-based award if she doesn’t improve.

Desperate and humiliated, Sabine doesn’t know where to turn. Then she meets Adam, a grad student who understands better than anyone the pressures of art school. He even helps Sabine get insight on Krell by showing her the modern master’s work in progress, a portrait that’s sold for a million dollars sight unseen.

Sabine is enthralled by the portrait; within those swirling, colorful layers of paint is the key to winning her inscrutable teacher’s approval. Krell did advise her to improve her craft by copying a painting she connects with . . . but what would he think of Sabine secretly painting her own version of his masterpiece? And what should she do when she accidentally becomes party to a crime so well -plotted that no one knows about it but her?

Complex and utterly original, What I Want You to See is a gripping tale of deception, attraction, and moral ambiguity.

ISBN-13: 9781368027557
Publisher: Freeform
Publication date: 02/04/2020

Living on the Brink of Homelessness by Brenda Rufener, author of Where I Live

Where I Live (Final Cover)Growing up, my parents struggled financially, and for years we lived on the brink of homelessness. My parents couldn’t afford childcare, so on Saturdays my mother dropped my six-year-old brother and me off at the steps of our rural public library where the doors opened at 9:00 am, and we were greeted as patrons. At the time, I had no clue of my family’s struggles, and I felt like the luckiest kid on earth spending weekends in a quiet space filled with books.

 

The librarians never side-eyed my worn-out tennis shoes or my brother’s Kool-Aid stained face. They didn’t bat an eye at a parentless ten-year-old stretched out on a patchwork rug reading to her younger sibling. As long as we respected the rules, we were welcome until closing time. The library became our place of refuge.

 

A few years later, I’d become keenly aware of my parents’ financial struggles. Money became a heated topic. How we needed it but never had it. And when my father lost his job due to layoffs, the already shaky foundation of my home crumbled.

 

We shuffled back and forth between homes and couches belonging to relatives. Our days spent living with family members turned to weeks, and weeks to months. I remember friends wanting to come over and hang out, but no rested on the tip of my tongue, embarrassed of the fact that I had no bedroom of my own. “Let’s meet at the library,” I’d say.

 

My situation, although not as severe as many homeless teens, partly inspired my novel, Where I Live. When writing, I drew on personal experiences, emotions, and insecurities I had growing up while facing homelessness.

 

The statistics of homelessness are overwhelming and impersonal. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, on a single night in January, 549,928 people experienced homelessness in the United States. Over one-fifth of people experiencing homelessness were children, and nine percent were between the ages of 18 and 24. Unfortunately, this number continues to rise.

 

Public awareness has improved dramatically since I was a kid, but there is still work to be done. Today, housing insecurity, like my parents experienced during my childhood and teen years, is at an all time high. We’re seeing a large number of college students living in their vehicles because they can’t afford rent. This is especially true among community college students. We’re also seeing families forced out of their homes due to abrupt rent hikes. And an alarming number of LGBTQ+ teens being forced from their homes after coming out to their parents.

 

To compound problems, many homeless shelters are not equipped to take in teens, especially those who identify as girls. Homeless teens report that they don’t feel safe or comfortable in homeless shelters that cater to adults.

 

In college, I volunteered with a literacy program helping homeless young women. Struck by their tenacity and unwillingness to give up hope, I was drawn to their strength. How I wished teen-me had known these women. They were homeless, but never hopeless, and they helped show me how homelessness takes on many faces.

 

Homelessness is not always the weathered and grizzled man panhandling on the street corner. Yes–he exists and should be helped, but other faces exist, too. They are the student sitting next you in class. The friend living in her car with dreams similar to your own. They are ambitious young people who are much more than their crisis.

 

Today, I continue my volunteer efforts to raise money and collect supplies for teen homeless shelters. Spoiler: Shelters need tampons, deodorant, and women’s hygiene products, and they are some of the least donated items. This small act of service is a reminder to myself, and now to my own children, that homelessness has many faces and is not a one size fits all journey.

 

My novel, Where I Live, is a tribute to the resilient homeless youth I’ve encountered over the years, and to a library community that filled me with hope and possibility.

 

Credit: Carolyn Scott Photography

Credit: Carolyn Scott Photography

Meet Brenda Rufener

Brenda Rufener is a technical writer turned novelist who spent her childhood stomping through the woods of Oregon. A double major in English and biology, Brenda graduated from Whitman College, and now lives in North Carolina with her family. She is an advocate for homeless youth.

https://www.brendarufener.com/

And buy link:

https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062571090/where-i-live