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Teens and Poverty: PBS Newshour Discusses Being Homeless and Trying to Graduate High School

As I thought about writing my post earlier today about teachers, I couldn’t help but think of my 4th grade teacher. I remember her name, I remember what she looked like, and I remember the intense hatred I had for her. You see, in the 4th grade my parents separated and divorced. We went from being a doing okay two-income family living in a house in the suburbs to living in two struggling very much separate apartments. Suddenly, I qualified for free and reduced lunch. I remember the burning shame each day in the cafeteria line and how you would pray that the lunch ladies would be quiet and keep it all on the down low so the other students wouldn’t know. Being labelled poor is like being forced to wear a scarlet A.

And I remember being at a parent-teacher conference where the teacher told my parents that I had no friends and she told them (this is not a joke), that they needed to buy me a pair of Jordache jeans so maybe I could fit in. We couldn’t buy me lunch, how was this even reasonable advice?

I eventually became friends with a girl whose family lived in a week-to-week low-cost hotel in a very dangerous neighborhood; one night her family simply disappeared as they moved on to another place. I was always aware that they were just one step away from the edge of what it meant to be homeless. It’s been more than 30 years and I wonder every day whatever happened to her. Life had already been so unkind to her, I hope that her family was able to turn their situation around at some point.

According to Do Something, there are 1.7 homeless teens in the U.S. 39% of the homeless population in the U.S. is under the age of 18. In addition to poverty, teens are often homeless because of abuse or because of rejection (or abuse) from their family because they come out as GLBTQ. In fact, 40% of homeless youth are homeless because of their GLBTQ status (Do Something).

And many more families are just one job less, medical crisis or other emergency away from losing it all. In many homes parents are working sometimes two and three part-time jobs trying to make ends meet while older siblings are asked to make dinner, help with homework and put younger siblings to bed at night.

As part of our ongoing focus on TEENS AND POVERTY, I encourage you to head over to the PBS Newshour for a special report on what Los Angeles is doing to help homeless teens complete high school. While reports come in offer other areas putting up “anti-homeless spikes” – and yes, this is apparently a real thing – other people are investing that money in trying to help people succeed. There are very real effects to children and teens living and growing up in poverty: it affects physical health, it affects mental health, it affects school success, and it affects the future. Not just THEIR future, but all of our future. Helping children and teen succeed makes the world better for us all.

Recently at one of my teen programs, a group of high school students were talking and someone mentioned a boy not at the program. One of the teens present said, “Yeah, he’s okay but man his teeth are jacked up. It’s like he doesn’t even brush them or anything. It’s gross.” And I mentioned to this teen that maybe his family didn’t have the money to take him to the dentist. It got real quiet and this teen remarked, “You know, he doesn’t seem to have a lot of stuff. Like, I don’t see him wearing a lot of different clothes like everyone else. Maybe he is, maybe he can’t go to the dentist.” I don’t know if this was the case or not, but I thought it was important that they take a moment to think of all of the various scenarios as to what may be going on for this young man. Far too often those that know nothing about living in poverty have blinders on to it around them. Whether that boy was living in poverty or not, there are students all around them that are.

Additional Resources:
National Coalition for the Homeless Youth Fact Sheet
Record Number of Homeless Students in the US in 2013
National Alliance to End Homelessness: Youth

Teens and Poverty Series at TLT:
Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please? 
Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty 
Working with youth who live in poverty  
Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like 
Sunday Reflections: Going to bed hungry
Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries 
Sunday Reflections: Poverty doesn’t always look the way you think it does
Sunday Reflections: All I Want for Christmas is the Chance to Go to College
Feeding Teens at the Library: Summer and Afterschool Meals
The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand
Book Review: PANIC by Lauren Oliver
Book Review: HUNGRY by H. A. Swain

Barnes and Noble: Homelessness and Runaways
The Homeless Experience in YA Literature
Library Thing: Homeless Persons Fiction

About the Books You See in this Post

Tyrell by Coe Booth:

“Tyrell is a young, African American teen who can’t get a break. He’s living (for now) with his spaced-out mother and little brother in a homeless shelter. His father’s in jail. His girlfriend supports him, but he doesn’t feel good enough for her – and seems to be always on the verge of doing the wrong thing around her. There’s another girl at the homeless shelter who is also after him, although the desires there are complicated. Tyrell feels he needs to score some money to make things better. Will he end up following in his father’s footsteps?” (Scholastic, 2006. ISBN: 9780439838795)

Can’t Get There From Here by Todd Strasser:

“Her street name is Maybe. She lives with a tribe of homeless teens — runaways and throwaways, kids who have no place to go other than the cold city streets, and no family except for one another. Abused, abandoned, and forgotten, they struggle against the cold, hunger, and constant danger.”  (Simon Pulse, 2005. ISBN: 9780689841705)

See also the new title from Todd Strasser: No Place

Smoke by Ellen Hopkins

“Pattyn Von Stratten’s father is dead, and Pattyn is on the run. After far too many years of abuse at the hands of her father, and after the tragic loss of her beloved Ethan and their unborn child, Pattyn is desperate for peace. Only her sister Jackie knows what happened that night, but she is stuck at home with their mother, who clings to normalcy by allowing the truth to be covered up by their domineering community leaders. Her father might be finally gone, but without Pattyn, Jackie is desperately isolated. Alone and in disguise, Pattyn starts a new life, but is it even possible to rebuild a life when everything you’ve known has burned to ash and lies seem far safer than the truth?” (Margaret K. Elderberry Books, 2013. ISBN: 9781416983286)

Book Review: Smoke by Ellen Hopkins

Pattyn Scarlet Von Stratten
Some Things

You can’t take back, no
matter how much you wish
you could. No matter how
hard you pray to

all-powerful miracle maker.
Some supposed God of Love.
One you struggle to believe
exists, because if he did,
wouldn’t be so out of control,
and you wouldn’t be sucked dry
of love and left to be crushed
like old brittle bones that
easily ground into dust.
Hindsight is useless
when looking back over
your shoulder at deeds

In Smoke by Ellen Hopkins, the sequel to 2006 Burned, readers come back to sisters Pattyn and Jackie Von Stratten. The story is told in in the alternating voices of the sisters; Pattyn is on the run from the community and the law and still dealing with the death of her beloved Ethan and their child, and the abuse she suffered at the hands of their father. Meanwhile, Jackie is home and having to deal not only with the aftermath of the shooting, but also with trying to pick up the pieces of her life and figuring out what is left for her after everything that has happened. Can either sister find their peace, or their voice, in the paths that they’re forging? Or will everything crumble to ashes and smoke?

Smoke is not to be taken lightly, and has a lot of trigger points for victims of abuse (both physical and sexual). Told in verse style, the voices of Pattyn and Jackie strike through to the core of readers and never let go, and readers will be flipping the pages to find out what happens. Finding hope and their voices is a central point within the story, and it gives hope to those looking for a way out of the darkness. Will definitely appeal to fans of Hopkins, although I would recommend readers start with Burned if they haven’t already read it- while not necessary, it helps build the story. Would definitely pair with other teen verse fiction books, such as What My Mother Doesn’t Know or the Make Lemonade series. 4.5 out of 5 stars. 

I adore Ellen Hopkins, I’ve met her in person many times, and I love her books. That being said, Smoke was like this for me:

FIRST, there is Pattyn, who is still dealing with the loss of Ethan (whom she was secretly seeing against the church elders’ wishes) and the loss of their baby in the crash from Burned. She’s on the run, out in the world, and is off to California with no plan or anything. Never mind that she’s reeling from that trauma, she has to leave. Eventually hired as a non-documented domestic housekeeper, she’s giving love to the youngest daughter while the oldest goes totally off the deep end.  In a big way.  Needless to say, by the end of the book, THAT ends up shattering Pattyn’s world (can’t give everything away) and things crash down just when she finds some sense of peace. 

THEN, while all of THAT is going on, we’re also getting Jackie’s story. Jackie is stuck at home with a mother who is disengaged, a church who is messed up, and a rapist classmate who has the protection of the church. She’s dealing with the trauma of being almost beaten to death by her DAD right after she was raped of her virginity, and she’s being told that the rape was consensual and partially her fault. Jackie, however, is finding her voice, and starting to build herself back up even though she’s suffering through PTSD, and finally every wall that they try to build around her comes crashing down, even the ones her mind had built.

It is a POWERFUL book, and a beautiful book, one that should be in a YA collection but definitely has triggers in it. Teens that are readers of Hopkins’ work will not be surprised by the topics is contains, and she deals with them honestly and in a way that brings you to tears.