by Gillian Lawhead

Classism; the prejudice against or in favor of people belonging to a social class. Prejudice; the preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. Homelessness; people without a permanent dwelling (often unable to maintain regular, safe, and/or adequate housing.

If you asked my thoughts on homelessness before I watched The Homestretch I would’ve made many naïve and incorrect notions stereotyping those who did end up on the streets. Since the film was specifically about youth, I assumed that maybe they were parentless, their own families must’ve been homeless, or they must be into drugs and unhealthy habits leading to them on the streets.

But I could not have been more wrong.

To my surprise, not every homeless person “chooses” to be on the streets. Not every homeless person is addicted to drugs, alcohol, or other bad habits that take up their money. Most importantly, not every homeless teen is out there because they don’t have a home. What I learned from the personal stories in this film were often that being homeless was often safer and better for those teens than trying to stay at home.

Most of the teens represented in this story are enrolled in school. There are approximately 19,000 students registered as homeless in our public schools today. Personally, I never realized that taking classes and attending school could even be an option for homeless youth. The important thing to realize with each one of these kids is that they are human, just like any other youth in America. They cannot be categorized as helpless, hopeless, or unintelligent simply because of their living conditions (and that’s hard for those not on the streets to understand).

Roque was a senior in high school who was living with his teacher and her family. After his father left and his mother got remarried, Roque was left to figure out his own life. He is working his way into college and looking for his future home. By getting into college he could start his life living on his own and taking classes towards a degree that could get him into the working world.

Kasey used to live with her mom and grandmother, but when she came out to them as lesbian, they no longer wanted to support her. She was on the streets for two years before getting into the Teen Living Program which offered her a place to stay, meals, and a support network of young people like her. Eventually, Kasey gets into a program where she lives in her own place with a roommate and a room to herself. She is happy to have her “own ceiling” to look at, she tells the cameras.

Finally, we meet Anthony who is slowly working to become an independent by finishing his GED, working towards having an apartment of his own, and getting custody of his son (instead of him being in foster care). We watch him attend the YearUp Program (which is a window to the work world for youth) balancing the tasks of learning and working. His main goal is to be a member of corporate America. We watch him learn some of the simplest tasks such as to Tie a tie, which is something he’s never had the opportunity (let alone reason) to learn himself.

Through these stories you start to wonder, what is there to help kids and youth like Roque, Kasey, and Anthony? The film offers a glimpse into organizations such as The Night Ministry, in school homeless liaisons, and The Crib. Each of these organizations/individuals do their best to support and better the lives of these youth any way they can. The Night Ministry takes a van out two nights a week with food and other necessities to those in need. The Crib is an indoor shelter housing homeless teens overnight (whenever there was room). At one point, they ran out of funds and were shut down until the government granted them enough to support the local teens. There are also unpaid homeless liaisons working within the school districts who offer reduced fair cards for youth and overall guidance.

Places like The Crib knew that homelessness was impossible to eradicate. It’s the right thing to be with someone, welcome them, and support them. It requires patience to work with issues such as homelessness. They warned, “You cannot be obsessed with meeting outcomes as the only goal is to work towards bettering the system.” Unfortunately, this is a prominent issue faced in many areas of our country, let alone the world, but it’s also something that has become so prevalent that it’s almost guaranteed to always be around us. One liaison told the cameras how the job was tough but that each name represents a story, a person who is going to be awesome someday.

Despite the lack of funds or available help there may be for these homeless teens, it only takes a person with heart to work towards creating a positive life for these youths. The Human Rights Film series showcased a multitude of films and documentaries highlighting upon prevalent issues in our society. The Homestretch offered the thought provoking matter of homelessness in the youth of America and how often it is ignored. I not only learned more about the prevalence of homelessness in America, but also learned the systemic challenges that homeless youth face, and what we can do to significantly change the number of American’s affected.

Although the Human Rights Film Series is over at Duquesne, there are several other ways to learn more about teen homelessness and get involved. I would encourage people to watch this film and see how you could help this cause in your local community. Three Rivers Youth is in Pittsburgh, PA and offers many ways to volunteer or intern with their program. In addition to their immediate response work, they hold events open to the public to raise money and awareness for this community. Proud Haven is a non-profit serving homeless and unstably housed LGBTQ+ youth in Pittsburgh. Proud Haven is always welcoming of volunteers and you can find more information on how to help through the application on their website!