I bet you’re like me in that from time to time you come across a word or term that you haven’t heard before that intrigues you or tickles your fancy. Recently, well actually yesterday, I came across just such a term- couch surfing Now, maybe you’ve heard the term couch- surfing before , but I hadn’t. Couch-surfing, I thought. What’s that? I’d heard of surfing the net, I do that all the time and it’s great fun. In fact, that’s how I came across the term couch-surfing in the first place. As soon as I read the term, I found myself trying to visualize someone couch-surfing, but all I could see in my mind’s eye was kids on surf boards riding the waves as the waves crashed onto the beach. Then it dawned on me. Couch-surfing is a term used to describe the phenomenon of kids sleeping on the different couches of different friends because they are homeless. I may not have heard of the term couch-surfing before, but I ‘ve known kids who’ve had to couch-surf, and it isn’t much fun for them. They weren’t riding the waves , but their lives were certainly crashing down around the them.
I had a student in my class last year who couch-surfed. I don’t know all the details of his family’s problems that lead to him having no place to call home , no place to take a shower, no place to have dinner, and no place to sleep except that his dad was violent and his mom was an alcoholic and things had not been good for a very long, long time. It was so unfair. He, I’ll call him Tommy, was caught up in the middle of an adult mess, and was not coping well. That wasn’t surprising since Tommy was just a teenager with limited coping skills. himself. I felt so badly for him because this was a kid who over the semester had develop goals , had a plan and was optimistic for the future, had a future now , for pete’s sake, when before he didn’t think he’ d had one . But that was before, before his life came crashing down around him.
Ok, I’ll admit it. I have a soft spot for Tommy. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. I just do. The more I got to know him, the more I liked him. Tommy reminded me of a cactus- all prickly on the outside and all mush on the inside. You just had to get past those prickles. Now, Tommy’s choices didn’t always make life easy for him. He was chronically late for his classes, didn’t hand work in on time, etc. You know, the behaviours that make students at-risk in school and drive everyone crazy.
In my class, Tommy learned that he had strengths and talents that gave him choices. He was an expert on cars. You could show him a picture of a head light, and he’d tell you what model and year of car that headlight belonged to. It was amazing. Especially for me because when someone asks me to identify a car I’ve seen, I’ll tell them it was a little blue one or a big black one. Tommy was also a very good cook and often did the cooking at home for his family. At first, he decided he wanted to be an auto mechanic because he loved cars so much but then changed his mind and said that he would rather become a chef. Why? Because, be told that if you were a chef you would always have something to eat.
Now, Tommy wasn’t really into school- if you know what I mean. I try to hook him into staying in school by encouraging him to start an apprenticeship that would lead to him becoming a chef. He could start his apprenticeship next year in grade eleven as part of a co-op program at our school. Being in co-op was usually a good choice for kids that weren’t into school. In the past, kids that I talked into going to co-op instead of just dropping out have been very successful in the work place. Co-op is usually for the entire semester so the kids get a break from school, and come back more mature for having been in the world of work with adults. Tommy was very enthusiastic about going into co-op. Hey, I was so enthusiastic about this. Who doesn’t like seeing at-risk kids start to turn things around. The future looked rosy.
Then, suddenly his parents split and Tommy was surfing the couches in the living rooms of his friends’ homes. If that wasn’t bad enough, since his parents weren’t living within the school boundaries any longer, Tommy was asked to transfer to another school. I guess the administration has to do what it has to do. I don’t know all the details. Tommy sometimes didn’t make the best choices for the best outcomes. Maybe his prickles were just too much for them. I don’t know. I just felt badly for Tommy because he was being forced to do more than transfer schools. Tommy was being forced to transfer away from his support system just at a time when he needed it the most. He had found kids and adults at school who could and were giving him the positive emotional support that he needed to help him turn his life around. People at school were there for him even if he felt there was no there for him at home. Now, he would lose all that. I guess that just the way life is sometimes.
Before Tommy left, I encouraged him to stay in touch with me through his friends at school. He wasn’t allowed to come to school to visit because our school has a no visitors policy. I learned from his friends that things just got worse. Because he couldn’t stay at a friends all the time, he ‘d been sleeping under the bleachers at the school. I can’t begin to describe how I felt about that arrangement. But, he was sixteen and his parents weren’t responsible for him any more, and he was too old to get support from children’s aid. There he was. I often wonder about him. I hope that he will still pull it together. You never know.
While I was reading the article about kids who couch-surf because they are homeless, I was delighted to learn about proposed plan to provide housing for certain homeless teenagers so that they could attend school and focus on their studies because they had a safe roof over their heads and a place at a dinner table. I immediately though that’s just what Tommy needed because he fell through the cracks in societies’ support system. He was too old to get support from children’s aid but too young to be on his own. Some type of group home might just give him the support he needed while he finished his apprenticeship.
Providing housing for homeless students is a controversial idea. Is it a good idea for schools to get into providing housing for homeless students? Depends on who you ask.
Shaquillia Meadows, 16, who spent the last school year bouncing among friends’ homes, sleeping on air mattresses, said she would benefit from a residential program at the school, where she is a sophomore.
“There would be people who care about me,” said Meadows, whom friends and teachers nicknamed Skittles because of her ever-changing hair color, currently green.
Her mother is a drug addict who has locked her out on several occasions. Her grandmother could no longer take care of her after moving into housing for the elderly last year. Meadows now lives with a foster family.
“I felt like dropping out, but, honestly, I don’t want to end up like my mother,” said Meadows, who wants to study forensics in college. “If I had somewhere to go home to and eat and shower and rest my head, I would be like, ‘Ok, now I could finish school.’ “
I encourage you to read the entire article. I’m not going to go into it in any more depth except to say that research has shown that there is a greater need for this type of support than was imagined. I believe society has a moral obligation to support these kids so they can be the best they can be. Maybe you don’t agree with me on this. That’s OK. Maybe you don’t think your taxes should pay for providing homes for homeless student. Maybe you think you’re already paying too much tax. But, let’s look at it another way, one that may help change your mind when you think about it. Providing housing and support for homeless students is an excellent monetary investment for society. Students who want to continue school who get this housing support will graduate and most likely be able to get better jobs, earn more money and pay more taxes than students who drop out of school because they have no home to give them stability. So if we just look at this issue from a dollars and cents perspective, we can see that for a relatively small monetary investment now, society will gain a huge monetary benefit later.
You know, sometimes because of the vicissitudes of life we need help. We’re looking for help in terms of a hands-up and are not asking or expecting help in the form of continuous hands – out. We are not looking to sponge off society; we just looking for a boost to get us through a bumpy time. I think for homeless students who want to continue school, this is a case of needing help in the form of a hands-up, not a hands-out and as such deserves societies support- at least that’s the way I see it.