In order to understand homelessness, it is important to underscore the humanity of those it impacts.
In order to understand homelessness, it is important to underscore the humanity of those it impacts; defining them by their potential and not their circumstances.
When I found the courage to embrace my Transgender identity, I was unprepared for the social consequences of living in my truth. I was no longer considered a person, and was reduced to nothing more than an “it.” The stigma associated with the Trans narrative lead to job discrimination, followed by unemployment and eventual homelessness. Women’s shelters wouldn’t accept me based on my gender at birth, and men’s shelters wouldn’t accept me because they feared I’d become a safety liability. I was 19 years old, devoid of support, and living in a state of desperation I’d never known before. I became exponentially more susceptible to violence while living on the streets and I feared that I’d lose my life to transphobia like many of my friends had.
Living on the streets makes the world seem so much larger as life becomes so much smaller. I walked endlessly on many cold nights; hungry, exhausted, alone and doubtful that my life would ever get better. Homelessness is difficult in and of itself; but the mental, spiritual and emotional displacement associated with it reinforces trauma that many never overcome. I used heavy drugs to cope with the disgusting, humiliating and deeply demoralizing things that were done to me out of survival. I carried a great deal of shame around those experiences because they made me feel broken, worthless and undeserving.
As tragic as those accounts may sound, I wasn’t after anyone’s sympathy and I didn’t need or require their pity. What I desired more than anything was a hand up—not a handout. As the ancient Chinese proverb suggests; Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day…teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. The objective here is not to save homeless youth. It is about supporting and protecting social service agencies and resources, like My Friend’s Place, that empower youth to save themselves. It’s about allowing young people to draw from their own strength and tenacity in a way that will change their lives forever. This is how we truly break the cycle and affect change! Although I was a victim of my circumstances, My Friend’s Place helped me claim full victory by helping me realize my potential.
As a homeless young person, survival became my top priority. Before life on the streets, I held aspirations of living an adventurous, creative, purpose-filled existence. Like many youth, I was never quite sold on a particular path, but knowing that I had the capacity to attain whatever it was my heart desired fueled me every day. Those dreams were overshadowed by the dark reality that, to the world, I was a non-factor. I watched as people saw me and did everything in their power not to allow their eyes to meet mine while passing by me. Perhaps it was because they feared I’d ask them for something, or maybe they wished they could help but didn’t know how. One thing was for certain; I had become invisible to society. I felt that because I was invisible, I had no place in the world. There was no sense in browsing life’s “menu options” when I didn’t even have a seat at the table.
By the time I’d found My Friend’s Place, I’d become so conditioned to focusing on my immediate needs that I had completely abandoned my intrinsic wants. The writing workshops, art groups, cooking sessions, movie days and occasional outings that My Friend’s Place extended to me made me feel as though I were among the land of the living again. Those spaces engaged me in a way that sparked the curiosity that drives many of us to discover passion and purpose for our lives.
I didn’t have money or resources for a vacation, but those activities were always the highlight of my week, month and sometimes year. It’s those little things that many take for granted, that I found so much joy, hope and comfort in. If but only for a few hours, I wasn’t just another random “homeless person” like I had been in other programs. I was a poet, an artist, a cook, a movie critic, a journalist, the clothing closet stylist of the century, whatever I wanted to be! The biggest take away from those experiences was not only rediscovering my future; but the firm reinforcement that I was the future. I no longer felt invisible, I felt invincible!
The circumstances I thought would scar me for life are now a beacon of hope for those still searching for the light at the end of tunnel. Those who have no one to help them uncover their passion or purpose; those lives that have been forgotten, ignored and overlooked. I am reminded that my past is a present reality for homeless youth still living on the streets today.
By supporting the mission of My Friend’s Place, we are actively increasing the chances of a young person’s survival. I stand here today no longer a drifter, cradled by the shadows of the night, but a dreamer, awake to the unlimited possibilities that life has to offer. My journey is a testament to homeless youth everywhere that it truly does get better. Like myself, they are worthy, one of a kind and they too have the capacity to live a life beyond their wildest dreams.
—Ashlee Marie Preston, My Friend’s Place Alumna and 2016 My Friend’s Place Champion of the Year