December 06, 2014

Who Knew?

A good friend is considering producing a show in which he would interview homeless persons. What are the back stories for these people? How did they land on the street?  Knowing that most children do not grow up dreaming of growing up and being cold and hungry. No kid that I've ever asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" has ever answered, "I'd really like to homeless and invisible."

We live in a town where the population of homeless is huge and growing. We see them wandering the streets day and night, living in the parks and doorways, panhandling on every other corner. These poor souls are the visible homeless.

What about the invisible homeless?

There are two young men sleeping in other rooms of my house as I type this. They are students at a nearby college. They came to our town to be on our football team. Their families are hundreds of miles away..

Two months ago we discovered one of them.  He had been living in stairwells, benches and occasionally on one of the other team members couches or floors.  He was surviving on Top Ramen and warm water from the college cafeteria. He tried to hide his homelessness from his coaches and teammates. Finally, he confided in one of his coaches. He now lives with us.

He was extremely quiet the first week or two that he was here. He was almost embarrassed to share meals with us. We had to convince him that it was open season on the snacks in pantry and fridge; no license required to consume.

"Maybe he wants Top Ramen!" I thought, after several times of asking him what his favorite foods are and getting a shoulder shrug for an answer, after all, he is only 19.

I bought several packages of the stiff sodium-packed noodles and left them on the space we had cleared for him on a shelf in the pantry.  The next morning I noticed that he put a pair of socks and two packs of ramen in a plastic bag, then dropped the bag into his backpack. It made me feel good that he was probably going to eat the ramen at lunch.  Slowly the packs of that ghastly dehydrated soup disappeared.

A week before Thanksgiving he brought a friend home with him. They were both leaving for home on the bus at 1:00 a.m. for Thanksgiving break.  He asked if his friend could spend the night and go to the greyhound station with us.  They were gone for two weeks.

When they returned, they hung out with us in the evening. We ate a late dinner, so asked the friend to spend the night on our couch.  He seemed relieved.

The next day, he returned to school but was at the house doing homework at the table when I got home in the evening. He ate dinner with us again and slept on the couch.

That next day we discovered that he was the reason our first roommate took the clean socks and ramen to school.  They had both been homeless while attending college classes and playing on the team. The second young man had dropped out of football because he found that his studies were slipping. He couldn't play ball and keep up his classes when he was barely sleeping at night in stairwells.

They had been sleeping in the area around the college until the warnings that a mountain lion had been spotted on campus...four times. That's when they moved into stairwells and cafeteria seats.

He carries a 3.1 and his classes are tough.  He'd won a Division I football scholarship in his freshman year and attended a four year college. The tough part of being a freshman in a Div I four-year-institute is you get a lot of bench time.  He also found that his fellow students and team mates were pretty bigoted. Hard stuff when you are away from home for the first time.

How can this happen?  How many other students are sleeping in the park, stairwells or the mountain lion infested campus? How many kids are afraid to call home and ask for help, not wanting to add to the stress of their parents?

What's wrong with me that I never imagined that there are kids out there, working hard on an education and sports, that are homeless. I know about the hungry part. I remember my own son telling me when he returned home from school that he would sometimes lay on his bed as still as he could to conserve energy. He had a job, an apartment and full-time classes but still didn't call for help because he didn't want to stress us out.

These two students are warm, clean, well-fed (but don't serve them anything with sun-dried tomatoes) and have a place to stay. They will both be returning to their families for Christmas, the families that they didn't tell about their situations because they didn't want to make it a hardship on parents still trying to support younger kids; parents struggling in this economy. Next semester they will take online classes. Next year, our newest kid, will be returning to play football. He will be playing for a Pac 12 school.  He will be graduating with a degree in Kinesiology and Physical Education.

Maybe one day he will be coaching a college team and will remember to check with his players, to make sure they have a place to rest their heads at night.

When we look at the visible homeless, we need to remember, they have a story, but we also need to be aware of the invisible homeless and ask, "What can we do?"

My husband and I have really grown to like these two kids. The energy in the house is nice. We will truly miss them when they are gone. 

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