As soon as Daniel said that, I got it.
I grew up in Green Hills. The concept of teenagers living on the streets never crossed my mind…at least not until I walked through the doors of Oasis 18 months ago. My hunch is I’m not alone in my ignorance.
When you walk the streets of Nashville, you don’t see a lot of homeless teens. But they’re there. They live in cars, on the floor of a “friend’s” place or out of the line of site. Homeless youth are easy targets for theft or violence, so they try to stay invisible.
I started doing Street Outreach as a volunteer last summer and it opened my eyes to a whole new world. It’s one thing to awkwardly look the other way when you’re in your car and a homeless person is standing on the street corner(I admit I’ve done it). It’s another to look at them in the eyes as you’re offering them a pair of socks. You start to see “them” for what “they” are: sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers-people just like you.
Every Tuesday under the Jefferson Street Bridge at 2nd Avenue, a church organization hosts a dinner and music service for the homeless of Nashville. We walk up and down the line of hungry people offering socks, a prized possession when your feet are your only means of transportation. We give out most of the socks to adults, which seemed a little strange at first given our mission.
But Ben and Susan (our Street Outreach staff) taught me a lot about the homeless community…how the older homeless folks often look out for the younger ones. How many times we’ll learn of a homeless teenager because a homeless adult will email us from the public library and tell us that “a young person in a blue shirt and black shorts is at such and such a location and needs help.” So the socks are working. In a big way.
But I still didn’t really “get it.”
That all changed on Tuesday.
Daniel hitched a ride to Nashville a couple weeks ago. He been living on and off the streets of Memphis for several years. He didn’t talk too much about his past, saying only that when he turned 18, his parents kicked him out because he was “an adult.” He was still in high school.
In Nashville he followed the crowd to the Tuesday night dinners. There he found out quickly about Oasis and visited us within the first week of getting here…a pretty powerful testament to our Street Outreach efforts.
He hadn’t taken his medication in over a month. Depression, bipolar disorder and mild schizophrenia. He also had a problem with alcohol.
“I know it’s not the right thing to do, but I’m so lonely on the streets and alcohol is the only thing that numbs the pain. And now it’s getting so cold at night…last night was bone-chilling cold man…I mean bone-chilling. It’s not safe to sleep at night, so I just walk around. I get so lonely and so cold, I get to a really bad place…start thinking some really bad thoughts…”
He didn’t need to finish his thought. We both knew he was talking about taking his own life.
But then he said the words that validated why we do what we do. His tone brightened as he said “but man I thank God for Oasis…I really do. Those people care about you. I mean, I keep going because I know every day I can go there (the Outreach Center) and get a hot meal and have someone to talk to. It’s the only time all day I have a little peace in my life.”
“It’s really hard out here…last night I was so cold and I was so lonely…man, I just sat on the steps of Oasis and cried and cried and cried. I don’t know why I ended up at Oasis…I guess it’s just the only place where I feel good.”
As I listened to Daniel talk openly about his life, I finally understood what it was like to be a homeless teen. Or at least as much as you can without experiencing it. And there was something very powerful in him saying that he just ended up at Oasis in the middle of the night.
As I reflected later that evening on his story, I realized the power in his actions. I thought about the times in my life when I’ve been overwhelmed, where I felt alone and overcome by sadness.
In those moments-the ones we don’t talk about-you have a yearning for comfort. For warmth. In those moments, you just want to feel safe and loved.
That’s why Daniel found himself on the steps of Oasis in the middle of the night. He was yearning to feel safe. In the middle of a cold night, he went to the only place where he felt warmth. He needed someone to show compassion, and he knew that Oasis would be there to show him love.
The next day Daniel showed up for counseling at Oasis and we helped him get off the streets and into a 60 day alcohol/mental health program. It was the first step in a long road for Daniel, but I like his chances.
In my short time at Oasis, I’ve heard countless stories of young people whose lives have been changed because they found the things that I took for granted growing up. Simple things like having a place where you feel safe and secure. Having caring adults in your life who believe in you.
It’s amazing to watch the transformation of our young people when they find that sense of safety and belonging. When for the first time in a long while, the dark clouds of despair start to give way to the bright sky of hope.
A gift of $25 would provide a survival backpack like the one that brought Daniel to Oasis. Will you help? Make a difference. Donate today.
Oasis is currently in need of winter clothes for teenagers like Daniel who are living out on the streets. If you have an old coat in good condition, bring it to the front desk at 1700 Charlotte.
If you want to take a tour of Oasis, email me at email@example.com.