Compass: Downtown kids need our encouragement, not our bleak assumptions

We at Alaska Youth Advocates know many of the youth in town square who were characterized as "causing all manner of chaos" in Julia O'Malley's recent article "Too Many Vicious Cycles." These youth are used to adults "knowing" their stories and assuming that they will end up in jail, addicted and abused.

While we don't claim to know their entire story, we know a significant piece of the story they share with us. They are stories with years of child sexual abuse andof not having someone to protect them but their street families. These are the lives they are born into, lives not by their choosing. They are used to adults who look down on them and expect the worst.

We take issue with the generalization of how these youth end up, since it is not true. At Alaska Youth Advocates we give these youth a different experience, one that expects them to do and choose better. It does not happen overnight. After years of neglect and trauma, trust has to be built, sometimes in the form of food on the street. From the outside it may look like giving a hand out or enabling. I would encourage a second look both at these youth and at our community services.

We work with youth such as Kelly (the names of those mentioned here have been changed for confidentiality) who after being sexually abused by a family member, has been couch surfing, another form of homelessness, for over 3 years. She was addicted to methamphetamines, struggled to stay out of prostitution but graduated with a high school diploma. Or John, who throughout his childhood was in and out of foster homes, struggled with suicidal thoughts and his sense of self-worth, but is now accessing counseling and starting a job readiness program this fall. Or Leah, whose family has a long history of drug abuse, who of own free will asked for help and had to wait months to get into treatment, which cost her thousands of dollars. Because of the support from our program as well as others these youth are succeeding. We choose to see the strength of the youth who are hanging out downtown and help to build success.

Along with several other strong programs, we have the privilege of seeing these successes but we need to see more. As a community we cannot afford for these youth to believe they will end up in jail and addicted. As noted by the White House Council for Community Solutions: "Each opportunity youth (youth 16-24 not enrolled in school or work) costs taxpayers roughly $13,900 per year (2011 dollars). However, this immediate burden is only a fraction of the future loss in potential: on average, only one quarter of the burden is incurred in youth (up to age 24); three-quarters is incurred afterward (ages 25-65)."

The solution isn't simple, but instead of making it harder for those who have already had it so hard, we can make services available. We can demand our state provide funding for substance abuse treatment and mental health services. We can become mentors to youth who need more supportive adults in their lives. We can give time and money to the nonprofits and churches that are showing up every day to build relationships and encourage the most at need to make positive choices. We can have resources available when people choose to ask for help.

These youth "causing all manner of chaos" are asking for your help. Enabling? Yes, we are enabling youth, who have survived more than most of us can ever imagine, to imagine and achieve a different and better future for themselves. Their adult stories have not been written and we have the opportunity to positively impact those stories. I bet they will surprise you. In fact, I know they will.

Heather Harris is executive director of Alaska Youth Advocates, which runs the POWER (Peer Outreach and Worker Education and Referral) program, a drop-in station at the Downtown Transit Center and