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Surviving the Streets Sean Kidd Yale Program on Recovery and Community Health November, 2004 Surviving the Streets Sean Kidd Yale Program on Recovery and Community Health November, 2004 1

Some Background • Most homeless youths have past histories of abuse and instability 1 Some Background • Most homeless youths have past histories of abuse and instability 1 • On the streets, victimization often continues, accompanied by numerous health risks 2 -4 • Outcomes of these experiences include high rates of depression among a range of mental health problems, and high levels of suicidality 3 -6 • Mortality rates are over 11 times that of the general youth population 7 2

The extent of youth homelessness • No accurate estimate • Problems in this include The extent of youth homelessness • No accurate estimate • Problems in this include • large numbers of hidden homeless • ambiguity about the definition of homelessness • Rough estimate: 1 -2 million homeless youth in North America 8 3

The “Streets” • Enormous range of lives lived on the streets. Range in: • The “Streets” • Enormous range of lives lived on the streets. Range in: • Particular context • Social sphere • Type of and success in adjustment • Cycle in and out of different “forms” of street life • Generally, fewer resources 4

The Study • Goals: • verify trapped model of suicidality • Better understand resilience The Study • Goals: • verify trapped model of suicidality • Better understand resilience • Participants: • 208 youths, aged 14 -24 • 122 male, 84 female • Interviewed on streets and in agencies in NYC and Toronto 5

Presented here: • Results of analysis of narratives on strength and resilience • Interviews: Presented here: • Results of analysis of narratives on strength and resilience • Interviews: • Conversational • Key questions included “What keeps you going? ” “What do you pull from to get by? ” “What is a good time for you? ” • Analysis: Content analysis of transcribed interviews and field notes 6

Interview Experience • Welcome • People pushed themselves • Conversations lasted anywhere from 20 Interview Experience • Welcome • People pushed themselves • Conversations lasted anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hours 7

“I figured out who I am” • “You kind of know and start acting “I figured out who I am” • “You kind of know and start acting out who you really are out here. ” • “You have to adapt…even for the wrong reasons. You have to adapt out of convenience. You have to adapt to get what you want. You have to adapt because you have no other choice. And sometimes it is good to compromise and take other points of view. ” 8

“What the hell am I doing here? ” • “I never thought that I “What the hell am I doing here? ” • “I never thought that I would end up in this situation. I guess that’s why I don’t like…this is not what I wanted [crying]…What the hell am I doing here? ” 9

“It has been a good change. ” • “Since being out here I have “It has been a good change. ” • “Since being out here I have realized how short and precious life is. ” 10

“…it’s hard to get out. ” • “If something is familiar to you, it “…it’s hard to get out. ” • “If something is familiar to you, it is comforting. You know the people in it. You know the lifestyle of it. And there are not too many things that are unexpected. It’s the same and it’s habitual. People fear the unknown. Becoming sober and changing your life is like ‘What am I going to do? How am I supposed to live? How am I supposed to get money? ’ I know this. I am good at this. ” 11

“The blue pill or the red pill? ” • “I can never blame anything “The blue pill or the red pill? ” • “I can never blame anything on anybody. It can’t be all like ‘My mom kicked me out and that’s the reason I prostituted. ’ It’s me. It’s all me. I kind of took the hard way growing up. It is like the Alice in Wonderland thing: ‘The blue pill or the red pill? ’, and I picked the blue pill. ” 12

Strength and Independence • “At home you are sheltered. You’ve got your mom and Strength and Independence • “At home you are sheltered. You’ve got your mom and your dad or whatever. Out here it is just you. You learn a lot of independence. ” • “The street, it helped me to be strong. I used to be really sensitive. I had to get strong because there are people who try to hurt you out there. They treat you like a piece of garbage and you have to get some strength. ” 13

“You learn street smarts. ” • “I grew by using my instincts. Normally, when “You learn street smarts. ” • “I grew by using my instincts. Normally, when you are in a house, all of your instincts are gone. And now when I look at people I learned not to take anything from them. ” • “it is not book smart, but it definitely gives a lot to a person…someone can go to a university and know a lot of shit but they would come out here and wouldn’t know what to do with themselves…. people definitely take pride in that. ” 14

Time as a reference • “I am bitter. I don’t trust people. I am Time as a reference • “I am bitter. I don’t trust people. I am a very negative person. It hurts. I never used to be a negative person…I am angry for having to be out here. It is not healthy. ” • “I see people who had good backgrounds and they will get in a bad situation with me and my friends and they’re scared. ” 15

Time as a reference cont’d • “I don’t want to end up on the Time as a reference cont’d • “I don’t want to end up on the street. Honestly, some of those guys will be asking for spare change for the rest of their lives. ” • “We live in the moment. Me and my sister had to carry our friend’s dead body out of a squat in New Orleans. It really just makes you realize how short and how precious life is. ” 16

“The kind of love and respect a child should have. ” • “I didn’t “The kind of love and respect a child should have. ” • “I didn’t want to do dope but I didn’t have anything to push me not to do it…I had nothing to quit for. But once I had my daughter it was a whole new world. By having a baby I could get off the dope and put my life in perspective. Which is good you know? I have a clearer mind on things. ” 17

“I had a few people show me how it worked. ” • “Some people “I had a few people show me how it worked. ” • “Some people come out on the streets like any other normal teenager, and then in a couple of weeks they are dressed all punk or whatever. They feel safe, putting themselves in some kind of group…stronger when they feel like they have a group to back them up. ” • “I was lucky when I came down here that I had a few people show me how it worked and what to do. But I have seen other people who it goes really bad for. ” 18

“It is family. ” • “It is family [street family]. Those of us who “It is family. ” • “It is family [street family]. Those of us who don’t have family…we were fucked up kids and we became fucked up teenagers. You never actually feel any connection with the family you have. When you get out here you finally find genuinely good people…they are always a part of me. ” 19

“He wouldn’t like a crackhead for his girlfriend. ” • “It is him that “He wouldn’t like a crackhead for his girlfriend. ” • “It is him that gets me up, when I really don’t want to. He will say ‘Fucking get up already. ’ Sometimes I am walking down the sidewalk and I just sit down and you just feel like staying there and sleeping there and not moving. But he is always pushing me to keep on going. ” 20

“They are only there when you have something. ” • “You really can’t trust “They are only there when you have something. ” • “You really can’t trust anybody too much, especially on the street, because a lot of people lie to get what they need. ” • “Everybody needs to feel loved. It exists on a number of levels. There is protection, you feel safer. It is more peace of mind. What they really lack and need is someone to make them feel human. Someone to make them feel connected. Understanding is fairly easy to find since we are all in the same boat. ” 21

“I am trying to separate from that world but I can’t. ” • “If “I am trying to separate from that world but I can’t. ” • “If you are coming out of it, you can’t keep people on the street. And if they are really your friends, they will understand that you are trying to better yourself. And if not, then they are not your friends. Because misery loves company. ” • “And you know maybe if I didn’t have anyone caring about me I would be nothing. But I do have people care about me and I don’t want to disappoint them. That’s what keeps me going. It’s just being able to call my mom and tell her “Oh yeah, I’m good. I still live in the same place. ” It is normal. Not normal is turning tricks on the side of the road. Normal is having a place and paying your bills. ” 22

“Normal” • “Because I wasn’t thinking about quitting. None of my friends said anything. “Normal” • “Because I wasn’t thinking about quitting. None of my friends said anything. They didn’t tell me I looked shitty or that I should stop. They all just suggested we go do more. “ 23

“Our culture is sick. ” • “I can’t remember who said it, but someone “Our culture is sick. ” • “I can’t remember who said it, but someone said that rudeness was a sign of a sick culture. And, as a pan handler, when I hear “I’m not giving you shit to pay for your crack habit”…I am too fat to be a crack addict. What the fuck are these people talking about? So, I know society is sick because of the way that people look at me. ” 24

“I feel better about myself when I know that I am helping someone else. “I feel better about myself when I know that I am helping someone else. ” • “I have figured out that I feel better about myself when I know that I am helping someone else to not go through any of the things I have been through. My best friend just found out he has AIDS. He was raped a couple of years back by a bum on a train. He has gotten really heavy into drugs, and I forced him to clean up. It makes me feel better knowing that there’s one less person suffering. Because he was going to kill himself. ” 25

“I still have faith in something. ” • “Only God really helps. He is “I still have faith in something. ” • “Only God really helps. He is the only one who knows me. Who can hear and understand what I say and who doesn’t let me down. He is the only one who really helps. ” 26

“The drugs were always there for me. ” • “If you sit down and “The drugs were always there for me. ” • “If you sit down and listen to the conversations that go on with the people around here, almost everything revolves around drugs and making money for drugs. ” • “When things get really bad, the only thing that keeps me from wanting to just roll over and die is heroin. ” 27

Literature on street youth coping • growing literature on how street youth variously cope Literature on street youth coping • growing literature on how street youth variously cope with their circumstances 10 -16 • Themes include: • knowledge of streetwise skills • support from other youth • taking responsibility/concern for friends • spirituality • Independence • learning from difficult experiences • Lazarus and Folkman’s coping theory 17 28

Looking more broadly • implications of assuming a homeless identity…a doubleedged sword 18 -21 Looking more broadly • implications of assuming a homeless identity…a doubleedged sword 18 -21 • Erving Goffman on the adjustment of stigmatized persons 28 • Parallels in literature on reactions to severe chronic stress and trauma 22 -27 • Lazarus and Folkman continued 17 29

Bruno Bettelheim: • “We find ourselves in an extreme situation when we are suddenly Bruno Bettelheim: • “We find ourselves in an extreme situation when we are suddenly catapulted into a set of conditions where our old adaptive mechanisms and values do not apply any more and when some of them may even endanger the life they were meant to protect. Then we are, so to say, stripped of our whole defensive system and thrown back to rock bottom— whence we must carve out a new set of attitudes, values, and way of living as required by the new situation” (Bettelheim, 1979, p. 11) 30

Conclusions • The shifts of homelessness: • Identity • Agency • Connectedness • Worth/Values Conclusions • The shifts of homelessness: • Identity • Agency • Connectedness • Worth/Values • The various homeless realities (contexts and individuals) • A crucial time of life 31

Implications • Addressing the central adaptive process: • Resisting the streets vs. healthy homelessness Implications • Addressing the central adaptive process: • Resisting the streets vs. healthy homelessness • Finding ways off the street • Notions of the mainstream “monolith” • Rewriting life narratives 32

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