Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Re-Imagining Our Youth

“We are what we imagine. Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves…The greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined.”
~ N. Scott Momaday

We had seen her there night after night. You’d probably seen her there yourself. The frail young woman curled up on the sidewalk near Powell’s Books on Burnside with scraped knees pulled tightly against her chest, concealing the early paunch of pregnancy. Choppy bangs hung over her heavy-lidded eyes and she held a small piece of cardboard requesting spare change from anyone who might glance down in her direction. Beneath the dirt she bore a telling scar in the pale fold of her arm. She looked as though she might slip right into the cracks of the pavement and disappear forever, if only it were that easy. Let’s call her “Mary”. That’s how she appeared when our Street Outreach teams first approached her on our nightly rounds of downtown Portland and, crouching down as we have done countless nights before, introduced ourselves: “Hello, we’re Yellow Brick Road, can we help you with anything tonight?”

Like many of the young people we make it our business to meet on the streets, Mary’s clothing was a tattered assemblage of seemingly undecipherable punk rock patches and slogans. It was in that clutter of weather worn patches that we first detected road signs of her painful journey and glimpsed an opportunity to break through the isolation. Contrary to popular misconception, young people are great communicators even if their messages aren’t always easily understood or desirable. Even in silence, young people are incessantly expressing themselves in their own obscure tongues and we adults, us youth advocates, have only to tune in, listen attentively, and learn the language. An experienced and attentive outreach worker can frequently glean more raw data from a young person’s faded patches and “homemade” tattoos than could ever be discerned from a more formal assessment. We just have to learn the language. And to learn the language we have to want to hear what young people are saying. Sometimes we find their hearts are literally sewn onto their sleeves! As our outreach team squatted beside Mary on the sidewalk one evening I made a passing remark about one of the band names emblazed across her skirt and asked if she had recently been out east. For the first time in nearly two months since we first began visiting her regularly at that corner of Burnside & 11th Mary pushed the hair away from her eyes and looked directly into my face. It turns out she’s from Pennsylvania. And even though she refused our assistance yet again that night, I walked away knowing that we had just made an important connection and that her trust in these funny “outreach people” with bags full of “stuff” was growing. The next time we saw Mary she accepted a Q-Tip to clean her ears and mumbled a polite “thanks” under her breathe as we walked away. A week later we met again at a public meal under the Burnside Bridge where she remembered my name and called me over to talk. She still couldn’t quite look me in the eyes but she accepted a clean pair of socks and we had our first conversation that night. When tears came to her eyes I jokingly reminded her, as I often do, that after years of doing this work I no longer take it personally when people cry during our conversations. An unexpected laugh escaped her lips and surprised us both. She finally agreed to visit me at my office later in the week.

I’m not entirely sure how she eventually mustered the courage to walk through the door but the following Wednesday, as she had promised, Mary visited me during our weekly Outreach & Engagement office hours. That afternoon we sat together and discussed her life in great detail. I listened unflinchingly as she explained her childhood, the slow creep toward heroin, and the burned bridges that so often follow in the wake of addiction. She had traveled to Portland with her boyfriend where they had planned to get clean and start a family. Living in a car they conceived a child just days before he was arrested and extradited back east, leaving her strung-out and pregnant on the streets of Portland at the age of 22. It’s no wonder that she was soon plagued with panic attacks and the paralyzing grip of depression. Beyond the long shadow of all those seemingly insurmountable problems I saw, as many of us who choose to work with vulnerable young people do each day, the shining promise of a young woman about to embark on the long journey toward recovery. I think I jokingly suggested, as I often do, that the most “punk” thing she could do was get clean and have a healthy baby. Within hours we were able to determine Mary’s identity and legal history and she was immediately provided a bed at the Janus Youth Crisis Shelter. The following morning she agreed to wake early and catch a bus across the river to a detox center. Suddenly she had options again and together we formulated a strategy to prioritize her needs and begin to unravel the unfortunate circumstances that had so overwhelmed her life.

Since that afternoon Mary and I have met every Wednesday to discuss her progress and plan appointments. We enrolled her in OHP and went together to her first pregnancy exam at the Women’s Wellness Center at OHSU. Soon she received her first ultrasound exams and attended the first of several parenting classes. She began substituting heroin for methadone and regardless of your opinion of methadone it sure beats the dull unending grind of panhandling and copping illegal drugs. We call that “harm reduction” downtown. And what does a recovering addict do to replace the void of that unending grind? Create new rituals of health with yoga classes and other healing arts. With funding Janus Youth Programs recently received from a Hoover Foundation grant we were able to take Mary and others on field trips to unlikely destinations like the Portland Zine Symposium and the Body Worlds exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry. Increasingly she joked and told stories and began to simply enjoy her pregnancy. It was clear as she began looking people in the eye that Mary was beginning to envision herself as a competent person and a healthy mother. Shelter access allowed her to regulate her diet and sleeping patterns and take control of her hygiene with showers and laundry. We set her up with her own voicemail message system and she spent hours on our computers and phones looking for apartments and employment. She was never late for a single appointment (ahem...which is more than I can say for myself!). We secured a housing voucher and, after several weeks of hunting for a fair-market apartment suitable for a young mother and newborn baby, Mary moved into her very own studio this past October. Just a few months after meeting Yellow Brick Road on that corner near Powell’s Books Mary was out in the community picking up furniture for her new home. She hasn’t used heroin for almost 4 months. And it’s a girl.

Still Mary’s struggle has only just begun and as we all know, few things in life are certain. Mary has a difficult road ahead as a single mother and recovering addict with very limited work history. It takes time and resources and the support of the entire community to help young people transition from the streets successfully. Mary’s situation is uniquely inspiring in that it all happened so quickly and so smoothly. It often takes much longer and the outcome is not always so optimistic. Which is precisely why I chose to share her story and why I invite you all to share in Mary's success as she embarks on her own courageous path toward wholeness. I know those of you who work with vulnerable young people have met folks similar to "Mary" and you all have stories of your own. I hope this account somehow invigorates your work as we empower young people to re-envision their lives beyond the streets.

Dennis Lundberg
Yellow Brick Road
November 2007

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