A couple of weeks ago, I attended my first DTG meeting, listening as guest speaker Cindy Sheridan Curran spoke about the homeless in Arlington, and how our schools address the issue. It was difficult to hear. As a senior at Arlington High School, I can not pick out anyone from my school and easily label them as homeless. I suppose that’s a good thing: I’m sure no one struggling with their personal lives would want this known by their classmates.
In large cities, the homeless are strikingly out in the open. The little that they own is propped up against buildings in trash bags; you walk right by them on the sidewalks. When I visited San Francisco this past Christmas, the number of people on the streets shocked me. I was uncomfortable with their presence: I felt an extreme guilt. It was hard to concentrate on the beautiful Nutcracker ballet when I had just walked by crowds of homeless across the street. But in Arlington, it is easy to be ignorant. Arlington is a well-off town, growing increasingly more so. It’s hard to imagine that this issue exists.
It does, however, and in great numbers. There are 112 group home beds for kids in Arlington. These kids are usually above 13 years old, but according to Curran, they’re getting younger, while their mental health issues are growing. The extent of which one is considered “homeless” is also concerning: Curran defined it as not having a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This applies to families who lose their homes and move in with family or friends, those who live in group homes, or those who live on the street.
Understanding the magnitude of this issue, I have an entirely fresh perspective, but am still unsure of how to best respond. After hearing Curran’s presentation, I was instantly reminded of all the various overused, and sadly less effective reminders: “Be grateful for what you have”, and “Be thankful for your education”. We high schoolers roll our eyes; we complain about our lives like pros, but these sentiments are still very true. Education is extremely valuable, especially for homeless children, as it is often the sole point of stability in their lives. I’m not discounting our struggles, because no one, despite their wealth, can hide from hardship. However, I, and many of my fellow high schoolers are not put at a disadvantage because of our home lives. I can see a successful future for myself. These kids can not say the same.
After the meeting, armed with all the facts, I couldn’t stop wondering what I could do to help. I know I can not singlehandedly change these people’s home lives. But we can change their lives at school, in the community: when our lives meet. Programs at school are a great start. The Do-Something club has proposed making a school “closet” full of free clothes donated by the student body. Others have mentioned making a pantry of food available as well.
Most of all, awareness brings about action. If you don’t know something exists, you’re not going to do anything about it. And when you do know, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with guilt and privilege. Luckily, there is a lot we can do to help.
Grace Willoughby is a senior at Arlington High School and an intern at Arlington’s Vision2020 Diversity Task Group.