Hey everyone, its Anissa here! For those of you who may not know I am the Youth Systems Navigator for TAY Oceanside! TAY Oceanside is a drop-in and outreach program for youth experiencing instability in North County San Diego. A week ago, I drove down to St. Vincent’s Shelter to help do a supply drop off to help our young participants. I got lost in the drive, I got lost in my mind, as I reflected deeply on this year. I realized how drastically my life has changed. How I went from a participant to an employee. On the 18th of November, I celebrated my one year work anniversary working with TAY and being a part of the YMCA Youth & Family Services (YFS) family at the Y. Crazy to think that my journey with YFS started in 2016 after I graduated from Pasadena Community College and transferred to Cal State San Marcos. I know what some of you may think, what does any of this have to do with youth homelessness?
I was 22 when I sat across from the Y’s Housing Director for THP+, a housing program for former foster youth.
I was 22 years old with a four-year-old little girl dream. A dream that I held onto during my ten years of foster care; A dream I revised after every moment of trauma; A dream I shared with countless strangers who did not believe I would ever be where I am today. I sat across from that Housing Director, Amanda, in a conference room at CSUSM, and I remember thinking: “there is no way she will give me a shot at her housing program.” Somehow, the woman sitting across from me saw something in me I have yet to see in myself, even today. Amanda gave me a shot, a one-of-a-kind case manager, and an opportunity to become stable. The first six months in the dorms I spiraled into a deep depression. I felt guilty for sleeping in a warm bed, being able to take a hot shower, and cook a decent meal on a stove.
When I was homeless in my car alone while my mother was fighting for her sobriety in the hospital after a 10-year heroin run, I never realized how my homelessness affected me. How could I know that when people had called me strong, resilient, and resourceful over the course of my journey, what that meant? When you’re young, you google these words, and you look at these definitions and find yourself pondering. You think, how could homelessness make me all these things? How could surviving a broken (duplicative) system like child welfare have given me a transferable skill? I spent months crying myself to sleep at night. I was failing two classes my first semester and all I wanted to do was run home to Los Angeles. Why? Because I had already mastered that beautiful beast. Because my whole life only consisted of chaos and pain. I only knew a fast-paced life to always be in survival mode. Every morning, my goal was to get through the day and hopefully see the next day.
Through time, I learned I never realized my whole life I was in survival mode. I spent almost two decades of my life analyzing every situation with my “fight, flight, or freeze” mode activated. They say those of us who experienced foster care have the same levels of post-traumatic stress disorder as war veterans. I remember the first time I heard that statistic. It was the missing puzzle piece to the many unsolved puzzles of my past. It made sense. I was young, broken, prideful, and with mental health diagnoses I could barely understand. I spent years blaming myself for my mother’s choices. I spent years thinking something was wrong with me, just to learn every response I felt was normal. Of course I was depressed and shut down the first 6 months after living in a car for over a year.
What else was I supposed to do?
Are we expected to wake up watching Mr. Rogers hoping our world would change because we have a place to live? That’s just half the battle. What about budgeting skills? What about learning how to clean properly? What about realizing how important it truly is being on a rental lease? What about how important it is to own a can opener, yes, I said it, a can opener. Who teaches us how to resolve conflicts when a lot of us came from communities where an open grass field in the backyard was home to many fist fights? The biggest thing that no one ever taught me was self-advocacy! Using my voice and standing up for myself at the big table. Reminding providers and social workers that “hey I’m not just initials, a case number, or just the last four numbers of my social security card. I am a human being, with layers of trauma, that you think you understand, but have no idea how broken my trust is. That I want to be on the other side of the table helping individuals like myself, one day.”
When we talk about youth homelessness we always talk about statistics. We highlight success stories and we ask what more we can do to increase those successes. As a young person, I hated being considered a number, a statistic, and sitting in a room filled with people who never asked me what I wanted. Working with the Y’s TAY program, I do my best to make sure our youth feel safe, comfortable, and secure. Once upon a time we used to love seeing our youth in our spaces and hear the laughter and smiles during round table conversations. Now, during a global pandemic, we are doing our best to make sure they know we are still here. We do our best to make them feel like TAY is still family. We take the time to get to know them and support their dreams. It almost sounds like a fairy tale, but I didn’t have any kind of support back home in Los Angeles like I had with YFS when I was a participant. I didn’t know that one day I’d get to work alongside the heroes that saved me.
Below is a short letter to remind us all what we do, how we do it, and why it is truly important.
Let me be clear that I am just a YSN, a tiny human, hoping to continue to do what I love to do to and impact one person a day. To bring one smile, or one laugh to lighten the mood. I am not the voice of the people, or a newly elected hero, I’m just Anissa.
To the youth that could be reading this, to other providers, and the Y family: I do not do this line of work for the money. I do this work because I want the amazing faces out there to know that they are not alone. To the youth out there: I want you to know that without your voice and without your dreams, this work means nothing. I want you to know that just because we carry certain job titles, it does not mean that we do not share common ground. A team of heroes requires specialized skills, and trust me, education does not take all the credit. I want you to know that WE truly advocate for you all. I wake up every morning preparing myself for the new things you will teach us. I go to sleep every night thinking about how we can do better for you all. We are constantly growing and evolving. Adulting is the hardest thing you can do in life, but I want you to believe that this is the most beautiful part of your life. It is NEVER too late for anything, or any dream! They call us survivors, but I call us Warriors. Our stories weave together to create a beautiful canvas that allow us to raise awareness around our obstacles. I want you to know that YOUR story is yours to tell and nobody else’s; You get to decide who you will be, not what they tell you can’t be. They told me I would be everything that I am not. I am here today making sure that I meet you all exactly where you are all at. The one thing I stayed true to was myself, even when I didn’t understand myself. I was authentic even when my insecurities were screaming at me day in and day out.
Those days you think about giving up, guess what, I still have those days. I know what you are thinking, “how can she have those days when she’s on the other side of the table? She made it, right?” Nope. The biggest journey you will ever go on in life is the life you plan for yourself. Always stay true to who you are. Remind yourself of the angels we lost during the war we fought and how important it is that you are here with us still. I am not perfect, in fact I’m far from it. I have two roommates, I live pay check to paycheck, and I’m still terrified I’ll be homeless again. The pain doesn’t go away, but walking looking fear in the face head on is the bravest thing you can give yourself. There is empowerment behind the vulnerability when you ask for help. I used to think I could do it all alone, but guess what, I was very wrong. Now I don’t stop asking for help. We are human and our species is unique in the sense that we bond and work together. It’s hard, but the work we are doing is because YOU are doing the work! Keep grinding, keep going, and remember that everything you are feeling is normal and okay. Use your beautiful voices, hold those purple hearts high because you deserve to own your wounds. Our wounds tell a story, so when you are ready to share it, or not share it, that is your RIGHT. Never sell yourself short; laugh at the people who tell you that you never will, or won’t be something great; remember to laugh because laughter is a great way to get through the pain; remember to cry because it is your body shedding a layer for a new layer of growth; Never forget that you are amazing at who you are and at what you do!
November is dedicated to prevention for homeless and runaway youth.
We chant that “a couch is not a home” and that “every youth deserves a roof.” The truth is: that a couch is and has been a home for a lot of us, but it is not a stable home. A roof for every youth requires many layers of systematic change starting with the family dynamic and moving through the development of young people. We are doing the work, we are doing the best we can, and by no means will this work be done overnight. When you see someone out there on the streets as you sit in the Starbucks line ordering your latte, order something for them and go chat with them. At that moment think about the privilege you are utilizing. Think about how most of us work from our couch these days and it's basically your home inside your home office, right? Teach our friends that only know how to use their left brain to assume our youth can just go get a job in a day, and remind them that we all know where our taxpayer’s dollars go to. Let’s do our part in educating ourselves as this line of work evolves, and teach what we know to the people who don’t understand it. Don’t feel guilty for the privilege you have and then race to donate to organizations like this so you can sleep better at night because that doesn’t fix our problem either. Be mindful of your adolescence, and remember that these are the glory days that a lot of our youth will never get to understand or experience. The change starts with you, and then you pay it forward, in hopes that who you taught will be impacted by the knowledge and thus pass it on!
To learn more about the Y’s work to end youth homelessness, visit www.ymcasd.org/yfs.