guest post by Cathy Tyner, Pullen Co-Worker, Housing Stability Mission Group
When I first met Thomas in November of 2015, he had just recently turned 18 and had been living outside for almost a year, after losing his connections to his hometown and his adoptive family. His adoptive parents had kicked him out, severing ties completely, stranding him without money, transportation, a job or the means to finish the higher education work that he had begun.
From the research and networking that Pullen has engaged in within the last year, through its Housing Stability Mission Group, we have learned that the problem of parental abandonment of children is a new and alarmingly increasing epidemic. Multiple agencies engaged in the ministry of relationship with our friends living outside have reported a steep rise in the homeless young adult population, and these agencies shared numerous, heartbreaking stories with us about parents driving to the downtowns of cities they do not live in, to drop kids off … on the street … at shelters … and at their agencies.
About one month before I met Thomas, he had found his way to the Pullen patio, hearing it was a safe place to sleep, after he had had frightening experiences elsewhere. One of those experiences was a turning point that was particularly devastating to his sense of safety and to his remaining, limited resources. While Thomas was sleeping at the shelter, someone stole his laptop, his phone charger and his Medicaid card. In this cascade of loss that had occurred in his life, this one involved loss of the very resources he needed, to seek employment and keep taking important medications.
Thomas is a survivor. He is resilient. He is someone you would call “a really good kid.” Despite undergoing the trauma of foster care, adoption, physical abuse and abandonment by adoptive parents, Thomas is kind and thoughtful, generous, personable, engaging and goal oriented. I was immediately impressed with both the depth and strength of his character. He is sensitive and thinks deeply about the world and his place in it. Thomas will tell you himself that he is rough around the edges, that he is not perfect, and my response is: who of us isn’t rough around the edges? … who of us is perfect? … and how many of us, with many more years of life experience behind us, would be able to successfully navigate what you have, so far, in life?
During our first meeting, Thomas and I talked about the nature of the co-worker relationship, and I asked him what his goals were. He took time to think about that question, and then he told me that 1) he did not want to be homeless anymore – he wanted to be able to make enough money to have his own place, so 2) he wanted to get a job – a good one, and 3) he wanted to go back to school and finish the college work he had started. I came to learn that Thomas had finished High School significantly ahead of schedule, and that he had completed 2 semesters of college by the time he was 17. He had been working toward a certificate in welding and ultimately wants to be a diesel mechanic. Immediately after his parents kicked him out, he lived in the woods at the edge of his college campus, and continued to go to his college classes for as long as he could, before funding ran out. In this same conversation, Thomas was emphatic that he also wanted to be in a position to help his friends who are experiencing homelessness. I admired Thomas’ commitment to try to move forward on his own power, despite significant adversity. I was also struck by his positive attitude and the hope he still has, that there will be opportunities for him to achieve his goals.
Between November of 2015 and June of 2016, my husband and I worked on getting to know Thomas better, deepening our relationship and supporting him in achieving his goals. Thomas left the Pullen patio and moved in with a girlfriend at her grandparents’ house in early December 2015. Then, they moved into their own apartment in Charlotte in February 2016. My husband and I traveled to Charlotte, to see their new place and spend time connecting. We also stayed in touch with him through frequent texts, messaging on Facebook and phone calls. Occasionally, we helped Thomas with resources. We purchased an outfit for interviews. We helped with some food and bus tickets. We helped with one month’s rent. Thomas is always appreciative and has always said he intends to pay us back, but I say to him that I would rather see him be successful and pay it forward.
Thomas was able to find employment in Charlotte before he and his girlfriend moved there. At first, he worked part-time at a nearby gourmet hot dog restaurant. Then he got an opportunity to move into a full-time job with higher pay at a professional painting company. He received positive feedback on his work in both jobs and was on the fast track to become a foreman with the painting company, but transportation posed a significant hurdle. Thomas was reliant on his girlfriend to drive him to and from a painting company carpool pickup location on her motorcycle. This worked well for some time, and Thomas received bonuses from his boss, for being punctual and reliable, despite not having transportation. However, schedule conflicts arose between his job and his girlfriend’s job, and the motorcycle was not in the best shape. Money was tight and stability was touch-and-go. Even so, Thomas was already trying to help others, trying to pay it forward. He called me, saying he had met some people who were experiencing homelessness, and he wanted to know if I could advise him on how to help them. I researched agencies in Charlotte, while he spent the little money he had, trying to help them. He bought them some food, and he bought one of them an outfit at Goodwill, because she had a job interview and only had the clothes she had been wearing on the street. He also occasionally let them couch-surf at the apartment.
Then the girlfriend lost her job. And the motorcycle broke down. The roundtrip cost of an Uber or taxi to the carpool pickup was more than Thomas could make in a full day’s work, and public transportation could not get him there, either. Without transportation, another cascade of losses began in Thomas’ life. Loss of transportation led quickly to loss of job, followed by loss of housing and loss of relationship – with the girlfriend moving home to live with her mother in Atlanta, where Thomas was not welcome to stay. A complete loss of the hard-won, if tenuous, stability that Thomas had worked so hard for could have led to a complete loss of hope. But Thomas shared with me how upset he was, that things did not work out as he had planned in Charlotte. We had discussions about how difficult it is to transition out of homelessness. That what happened in Charlotte was not failure, but a learning experience.
In late June 2016 when the cascade of loss was taking its toll, my husband and I invited Thomas to live with us, as part of our family. Thomas is now working a near-full-time job that is not too far from our house. Pullen provided a referral so he could get glasses through the Gift of Sight program at LensCrafters. Now that he has glasses, he is going to start working on getting his driver’s license, and he is saving money from his checks, with the plan to purchase a vehicle. The next step will be working to get his own place. At times, Thomas tells me he is frustrated that he is dependent on us for so much, and he wants to be further along with his goals … that he wants to be independent, already. I commend him for his fierce drive to move forward. I recommend patience. I point out that we are working on stability, that he has already achieved some goals since moving back to Raleigh. And I remind him that he is only 19 … that many 19 year olds are dependent, at least partially, on older more established individuals with resources, while they are building their own lives and garnering their own resources. I know my parents helped me in this way. I got a job while I was still living with them, still being provided for in every way. Still fully dependent on their resources. Next, I got transportation, with their considerable financial assistance. Then, I got my first place of my own, also with their considerable financial assistance. This is a model that works. This is a model for moving a young adult into independence and self-sufficiency.
My husband and I have been living as family with Thomas for three months, now. At the end of July, Thomas came with us on the annual family vacation and started developing bonds with my immediate and extended family. In August, we celebrated Thomas’ 19th birthday with a cookout with friends, neighbors and family – and Thomas told me he could not remember the last time someone had a birthday party for him. In September, Thomas started teaching me (ME! who has never played video games) how to be an assassin in Halo on the XBox, and we have discovered that we both love reading … that we enjoy a lot of the same music (despite our age difference) … and that we love binge-watching suspense/thriller and horror movies.
Most people reading this article may assume the “second chance” reference in the title pertains to the opportunities Thomas has received, through being supported by Pullen’s co-worker program. But I can tell you that, while Thomas has told me he is very grateful for this support, the second chance I am referring to is mine. As a 47 year old corporate business executive who never had the opportunity to have her own kids, despite that being both a goal and my heart’s desire, this is my second chance. My chance to have the family I had always wanted. My chance to develop a bond that is uniquely different than the bonds I have with my parents, siblings, spouse, friends, fellow church members, corporate colleagues … My chance to participate in loving and supporting a young person. My chance to provide a safe environment for mentoring, coaching and personal growth. My chance to make a positive impact on another person’s life and future, by assisting them in reaching their goals. My chance to have someone very special named Thomas in my life and my heart. Thomas, my son. Thomas, who I look forward to watching, as he achieves his goals, and as his generous heart continues to pay it forward in this world.
As the Rev. Hugh Hollowell, Director of Love Wins Ministries, explains, the opposite of homeless is not housed. According to Hugh, the opposite of homeless is community. Homelessness is the end result when someone who is lacking community experiences a series of losses or repeated traumas. Hugh explains that the goals at Love Wins, in working with individuals who are experiencing homelessness, are to restore people to community, nurture their humanity, restore losses in reverse order.
In a sense, before I met Thomas, we were both experiencing homelessness. He was living in the woods, in shelters and on the Pullen patio. He had lost his community – and was living without his adopted family. I was also living with part of my community missing – living without the family I had wanted to build, acutely feeling the loss of those “mom feelings” I thought I would never experience.
A wise person has said that family isn’t always blood. Family can be chosen. Family are the people in your life who want you in theirs; the ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile, the ones who love you no matter what, the ones who help you be the best version of yourself.
In our house, the opposite of homeless … is family. And love. Unconditional, unwavering love.