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Voices of the Poor: Jenny’s Story

Spare Change is an independent newspaper in Boston, which is mostly written and entirely distributed by homeless and formerly homeless individuals. The newspaper serves as an economic opportunity for people working their way out of homelessness, as vendors buy copies of the paper from the office, and sell them for a profit on the streets.  It also serves as an opportunity for people who experience homelessness to share their stories with the broader Boston community. When I lived in Boston, I always made an effort to buy Spare Change – both to support their important mission, and for the chance to learn about the issues that affect the homeless community.

The quotes below are taken from an interview, published in Spare Change, of a young woman who ran away from home at the age of 16. Jenny [not her real name] was one of an estimated 1,682,900 homeless and runaway youth in America, according to the Department of Justice. She speaks powerfully about her experience of homelessness and her vision for responding to the problems of homeless youth.

[After I became homeless, I slept for a while inside an unlocked church] “Today, those doors would probably be locked. I was at one point ‘discovered,’ which was my greatest fear, but the person simply put a blanket over me and left without waking me up. Today, society is numbed to homelessness; we are overwhelmed with compassion fatigue and acts of gratuitous kindness seem to be fewer. We avert our eyes from the hand-painted signs and ignore the rattling cups.

[During the time that I was homeless] It was legal for me to work [because I was 16 years old], and I did so as a file clerk in an appliance store. But the owner broke labor laws by allowing me to stay on the premises at night. In return, I put in unpaid overtime. Because the owner took a chance on me, I never had to consider prostitution, begging, selling drugs, or the other dead-ends that many homeless teens confront. If I had been 15, I am sure he would have never taken the risk.

Why didn’t I go to a government agency for help? It isn’t that easy. For most kids, it’s hard to find a place willing to open its doors for more than a day or two. Even then, the only goal of the ‘authorities’ is to get the kid home.

Many of the solutions offered to the problem of runaways will never work. Even if there were ‘enough’ funding from already exhausted taxpayers, such notoriously inefficient and soul-numbing government programs as welfare only create dependency. Those who will not trust authority or who have been further abused by government agencies will stay on the streets. What they need is to have the same chance I did. They deserve the right to work so they can take care of themselves without begging or turning to crime.

In many states, 14 is the minimum legal age for some non-agricultural jobs. But the law usually restricts the conditions under which they can work so tightly (e.g. the number of hours to be worked) that it is difficult for [teens] to make a living. Or, at least, to do so in a legal manner.

Child labor laws were intended as a way to prevent the exploitation of children in sweatshops and factories; they weren’t designed to prohibit teenagers from working in a warm fast-food restaurant. They were never meant to force a 15-year-old into prostitution or drug dealing in order to be able to pay for a safe and legal place to sleep.
Whether or not we agree with Jenny, her story is a powerful reminder of the importance of listening to the voices of those we seek to help when we set out to give tzedakah. Often, what they actually need may be very different from our assumptions about what they want. Certainly, their perspective as people experiencing poverty will be different from our own as people who are not. I believe we can learn a great deal from listening to voices like Jenny’s about how to give tzedakah in the most welcome and most effective way that we could never learn in any other way.

I’d love to hear your responses to this powerful interview in the comments. Some questions I’m thinking about:

• What can we learn from Jenny that we could only learn from someone who had been homeless?

• How does what Jenny asks for compare to what we expect homeless people want or need?

• Why is it especially important to talk to people who face poverty about their lives when we seek to act on their behalf?

Sarah

Sarah joined AJWS in September of 2010, where she contributes to the creation of educational resources and manages On1Foot.org, the online portal for Jewish texts and social justice. Prior to joining AJWS, Sarah taught at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and in the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies’ Social Justice Track. She studied at the Pardes Institute from 2008-2010 and at Yeshivat Hadar in the summer of 2008. Sarah holds a BA from Brandeis University in History and Political Science. Outside of work, Sarah enjoys cooking elaborate meals, studying Jewish text, hanging out with her fiancé and friends, and reading almost anything she can get her hands on.

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