by Bryan Crawford / @_Bryan Crawford
During the holiday season, most people never give thought to those who are a lot less fortunate than themselves and when they do, usually the attention is given to small children and adults without families to celebrate with or a place to go and enjoy a good, hot meal.
However, there is a segment of society that exists under the radar and tends to be forgotten because not very many people actually consider them: homeless teenagers. There are hundreds of thousands of teens in our society who, for various reasons, wander aimlessly through the streets with no place to go. No place to call home.
Enter the National Runaway Switchboard who serves as the federally designated national communication system for homeless and runaway youth. Recognized as the oldest hotline of its kind, NRS, with the support of more than 150 volunteers, handles an average of 100,000 calls annually and more than 3 million since it’s inception.
The NRS provides crisis intervention, referrals to local resources and education and prevention services to youth, families and community members throughout the country, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Consider these statistics according to the NRS:
- Between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away in a year.
- The most commonly identified issue for crisis callers to NRS was family dynamics (29 percent).
- The largest group of crisis callers to NRS is made up of 17 year olds (20 percent).
- The most common crisis caller to NRS had been on the street from one to three days (45 percent).
- Means of survival reportedly ranged from getting a job, obtaining money from friends or family, the sex industry or selling drugs, and nearly 35 percent of youth resorted to panhandling which is the single-most popular means of obtaining money.
All of these statistics are quite alarming and truly eye-opening when you consider the hardships that a lot of homeless teens face and last night, at St. Luke Church on Chicago’s North side, the NRS held their 12th annual Thanksgiving dinner to raise public awareness of the issues surrounding runaway, homeless and at-risk youth as a part of November’s National Runaway Prevention month.
Maureen Blaha, the Executive Director of the NRS and organizer of the dinner, knows the importance of giving back to these teens who are a lot less fortunate than a lot of us even realize and who are in a very difficult situation, especially around the holidays. Like most people, seeing these kids causes her to reflect on how fortunate she is in her own life.
“[This dinner] is really very meaningful and quite a powerful way to think about celebrating with my own family. I know how fortunate I am and I’m glad both me and my organization, The National Runaway Switchboard, can be there as a lifeline for teens that are struggling. We just want to talk with them about solutions and resources that are there for them individually, and raise awareness for others on how everyone can pitch in and help keep families together.”
Lashawnda Carter who is on staff at the NRS and handles communication and marketing, shed some light on the various causes that could lead teens to a life on the streets and some of the issues that they face later on as they enter into adulthood.
“Some of the teens here are runaways and others are throwaways, meaning they’ve been kicked out of their house,” said Carter.
“If you look around you’ll see a lot gay, lesbian and transgendered youth and a lot of them have either run away or been kicked out because of their sexuality. There are others who aren’t getting the support at home because their parents are on drugs. So a lot of times these kids will just leave because they feel safer elsewhere and as a result, there will be a certain percentage of runaway youth who will find themselves later on in life having suicidal thoughts and contemplating suicide.”
There were somewhere close to 90 kids who participated in last nights dinner and the NRS got a huge assist from Detroit Pistons guard, Will Bynum, who is also a native of Chicago. Bynum, who normally would be playing during this time of year but isn’t because of the NBA lockout, decided to come out, lend a hand and show his support for such a great organization and a worthy cause.
“I just wanted to come out and show my support because the NRS is doing big things here,” said Bynum.
“A lot of people don’t really focus on the teens and here in Chicago, that’s what’s needed. It also helps that someone who’s successful can come out and be a positive influence on somebody’s life. I’m extremely blessed and by me knowing that, it’s mandatory that I give back and do things like I’m doing today and hopefully, with me doing this, someone else can hear about it and try and help out also. I’m in the city everyday so I see a lot of things and I feel like the only thing that’s missing is the awareness of the issues that these kids face. So that’s why I’m here.
“I sleep good at night knowing that I’m giving back to the City of Chicago like this because normally I’d be playing right now and I wouldn’t be able to. And I’m not asking for anything in return because of it. I don’t want no media coverage, I don’t really care about none of that. I’m from the city, so I know what it is. I’m good with knowing that I know that I’m doing a good thing and I’m cool with that.”
Bynum not only spoke with some of the teens in attendance, but he also signed t-shirts for them and helped give out “survival kits” which included personal hygiene items, CTA passes, fast food restaurant coupons and assorted new clothing. It was a great gesture and a great way to show them that a person of Bynum’s stature cared about their plight and was concerned enough to come out and spend time with them.
During this holiday season as you spend it in celebration with your families, take a second to think about those who are less fortunate than yourselves. Those who face a crisis so much bigger than any of us could imagine. And if you can, lend a hand. It’s not just about donating money – although that is needed – but it’s also about giving time. A listening ear and helping hand can be so much more valuable and appreciated than any monetary contribution ever could.