David, 20, is intelligent, articulate, kind and caring, with incredible capacity for success. He never passed high school because there was too much emotional turmoil going on at home. His dad left when he was 12 and his mom, unwell and depressed, often spent her days bedridden.
David did not tell anyone about his home life, partly from shame, he explained, and partly because his focus was to keep his mom safe and cared for, and she did not want strangers in the home. He lived a facade. His friends did not know – nor did his teachers, or his neighbours – that this beautiful student was failing school because of overwhelming adult responsibilities.
This family could very well have lived in your neighbourhood and you would never have known. David came to Ometz last year after his mother was hospitalized. Some nights he had been couch surfing wherever he would be invited, and other nights he was in a shelter where you need to line up at 4 p.m. to secure a spot for the night. Then there were the nights in a park, or in the hospital lobby if the weather was bad.
Sara, 18, has a learning disability and is likely on the autism spectrum. There was no money for psycho-educational testing, tutoring or special-needs programs, so she too dropped out of high school and has not been able to find work, leaving her feeling hopeless and lost. Her dad was in prison and her mom was busy looking after her other siblings and her elderly grandmother, who suffered from schizophrenia. All this in a two-bedroom apartment. Sara moved in with her boyfriend, but after he assaulted her, she felt safer being on the street.
Jennifer was taken into foster care when she was 11. Youth protection was called because of an altercation between her and her older brother that ended in violence and court appearances. The parents were limited intellectually and did the best they could, but unfortunately did not have adequate parenting skills. When she aged out of foster care on her 18th birthday, Jennifer had nowhere to go. There were pimps waiting, watching for kids like her who do not have anyone to look out for them. They offered food and shelter at a cost to her dignity and safety.
When she managed to get away from them, she found herself with nowhere to go, frightened to stay in the shelters after her group home experiences. It took six months before she walked through our doors on a Friday afternoon, asking where she could go for Shabbat.
Mike, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community, is bright, ambitious and aspires to be an architect. His family, all professionals, did not understand his sexual identity and gender confusion and refused to accept the decisions he needed to make for his own empowerment and sense of self. One night, in a rage, he was kicked out of his affluent home and told he would be disowned if he did not come to his senses. He was faced with denying his true being, or living in a home where he would never be accepted. He spent four-and-a-half months on the street.
What have I learned about young adult Jewish homelessness in Montreal? They are much more than “the homeless.” True, these young adults lack stable shelter. There may be uncertainty about their next meal, or if they will have dry, clean clothes to put on. However, when we look at their experiences with a one-size-fits-all label, it erases their narrative, their struggles, their individuality and their resilience.
Young men and women who find themselves in this precarious chapter of their lives have a great deal to teach us about ourselves and about our responsibilities as parents, mentors and a community. Sharing their experiences shines a light on our own life purpose and our capacity for empathy and trust. Each of us has a role to play in opening our eyes wide enough to see these kids.
Many of us feel that the youths living on the street are addicts who don’t want to be employed and just want the easy handout. What I have learned is that there is nothing easy about this situation. These youths I described are all Jewish children from Jewish beginnings. Why is it difficult for us to accept that this insecurity and instability exists in our community? What aspect of their narratives might we have contributed to?
Were we the teacher or the coach or the cousin who missed the signs of a youth struggling? Were we the parent who told our child not to play with that kid because they lived in a crazy house, rather than stepping in? Perhaps we have our own history that we were fortunate enough to escape and these young people are reminders of a time in our lives that is too disturbing to embrace.
Let’s talk about it. Let’s find our empathy for all of the children, teens and young adults in our village. We do not have to search abroad to offer our hand. Our only certainty is that we will indeed all face challenges with our children, our parents and within ourselves. What remains to be seen is how we will respond.