Try a Little Tenderness

The unterrible part of being a homeless teen

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I was 16 years old when I ran away from home on a December night in Ottawa, Canada where the typical monthly temperatures range from ten to 21 degrees Fahrenheit at night. I had no choice. My mother was an alcoholic and I was the only family member left on whom she could vent an increasingly dangerous rage.

I kept from freezing to death by sleeping on a pew in an unlocked church I’d attended as a child. Then, the next day, I broke into my former home and “stole” some of my clothing, a small stash of savings from babysitting, ID, photographs, and a few other useful items. I never returned. I never saw my mother again. I abandoned my plan for university and replaced it with the dream of a minimum-wage job in a warm, safe McDonald’s. Meanwhile, I spent as much daylight as possible in obscure corners of a huge public library, using the public washroom to clean up.

My interval on the street can be measured in weeks because of a strong drive to get back into society fast, even at the lowest rung. The longer I was homeless, I thought, the more likely it was I would remain so. I remember always being cold, being afraid, and never meeting people’s eyes because I wanted to be invisible. I wouldn’t repeat the experience nor wish it upon anyone.

For decades, I’ve sorted through memories and emotions from my time as a homeless teen. As odd as it sounds, some of the fall-out from homelessness has been positive in the long-run. For example, it was amazing how much I missed the simple things that I’d taken for granted like soap, a glass of water whenever I wanted it, toothpaste, light switches, Kleenex, clean socks, a plate . . .  I suddenly understood the value of small things in creating the base of a “normal” life; it is a realization I’ve never lost.

Another realization: I was lucky. For one thing, I had turned 16 years old several weeks before running away. The difference? If I had been 15 years old, it would have been illegal for an employer to hire me because of child labor laws. Good-hearted people with humanitarian intentions had voted for and passed legislation that meant a 15-year-old me could have supported herself only through begging or illegal means such as sex work, theft, or drug dealing.

People will reflexively say, “you could have gone to a government agency for help.” No, I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – for several reasons. It is far from easy to qualify for quick government assistance; many social workers would have fixated on returning me “home” to the wretched situation from which I’d fled. Even if a social worker had wanted to help me become independent, the process of getting government assistance is a long, humiliating one with no guarantee of success. Even the best agencies tend to process people like meat. My overriding reason for avoiding “the system”, however, is one I’ve heard from others who were homeless teens. A child who ends up alone on the street has been betrayed by every authority figure she knows. Asking her to trust authority one more time is going to persuade her to walk in the other direction.

I was lucky because I was 16, and I had the chance to support myself. After about a week, I found an ad for clerical help in the paper. The owner of a modest appliance store needed someone to organize years and years’ worth of paperwork that he’d stacked in boxes. It was tedious and underpaid work but, after a few days, he let me spend nights in the store’s basement where there was a sofa and the extreme luxury of a bathroom. I was safe and clean, and he had a clerk who worked almost around the clock. I didn’t feel exploited; I felt fortunate — almost rescued. Hiring me and making the basement available was a quiet act of decency on the owner’s part but he would not have risked it if I had been 15 and doing so had been illegal.

One night, as I lay on the couch listening to unfamiliar noises in the store, I realized how lucky I was in another way. I was white, healthy, and born in North America. None of these circumstances were to my credit because none of them resulted from my efforts. Nevertheless, I slept in churches and spent days in a library because I lived in a prosperous, low-crime society that protected children more often than not. If I had been a homeless teenaged girl in a developing country, I don’t know if I would have survived or been able to pull myself off the street. The insight gave me a perspective many people lack; namely, I should always weigh any complaints about life against the extreme advantages life had handed me at no charge.

I felt grateful to the store owner but I never felt indebted to him. Perhaps I should have; he provided a phone number at which I could be contacted and, so, I applied for other minimum wage jobs to fill the gap when the filing was done.

To some people, the line between gratitude and indebtedness may seem blurry but, to me, it is sharp. Gratitude means you say “thank you” but indebtedness means you pay something back. I’d felt the latter emotion about a week before going to work as a file clerk when I was still sleeping in a church at night.

I would stand across the street and watch the large wooden doors until no one had gone in or out for 20 minutes or so before I chanced entering myself. After sneaking inside the church, I stretched out on a pew that was farthest from the door and from the altar because people might be in back rooms that were behind or to the side of it. I was terrified that someone would find me and I would lose the only place I was safe, where I did not freeze to death. Every night I fell asleep in a cramped, curled ball, fully clothed but shivering. Every morning I left before anyone could find me. At least, that’s what I thought.

One morning I woke up and I wasn’t cold. During the night, someone had put a blanket over me. I would have been overwhelmingly grateful if the person had simply ignored me so that I could continue to sleep in the church. As it was, the person chose to make me warm without demanding I explain my presence, without being sanctimonious or asking for anything in return. I’d stopped expecting kindness from people who were supposed to love me; I knew they would be cruel instead. Now I received anonymous compassion from a stranger I had never met and whom I never did. I have thought about the blanket for decades.

When it happened, one of my reactions was confusion. Gratuitous kindness was not a gesture I knew how to process emotionally. Today, I understand why someone who could harm a stranger would choose to help instead . . . even if it meant breaking the rules. The natural empathy that connects one human being to another makes it hurt inside to watch another person suffer, especially an innocent and vulnerable person. I also understand what it means to be on the receiving end of the gesture. The memory can still bring me to tears.

And, so, I am grateful to the store owner for taking a chance which allowed me to regain a glimmer of self-respect. I started to believe I could physically survive on my own. But, ultimately, the store arrangement was a fair trade that benefited both of us and I felt no lingering connection to the episode.

I am indebted to the stranger because the blanket was an act of pure goodness from which I experienced an immense one-sided benefit. The stranger helped me to believe in other people again. I can never pay him or her back but I can pay the kindness forward. Since that night, I’ve walked past people asking for spare change many times; I have a highly-developed sense of when a person is scamming or on drugs. But I don’t walk past anyone whose voice rings true. I know how powerful a small act of kindness can be, and I am still in someone’s debt.

I remember a night when I was not cold because people are compassionate. I know how lucky I was to be homeless in North America and to find an employer who’d gamble on me. I do not take the small niceties of life for granted. These are the lessons I select from my time on the street. •

Wendy McElroy is the author of thirteen books, several dozen documentaries and hundreds of articles that have been published in venues ranging from Penn State University to Penthouse magazine.
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