What Teresa and Gary learned from a homeless teenage father

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Our education started Sunday, after grocery shopping. It was already 100 degrees and not even noon. A teenager with his arm in a sling and his nicely-dressed girlfriend staggered down Highway 21 in Beaufort with everything they owned in a stroller, two suitcases and a dozen Bi-Lo plastic bags. The luggage included two babies – a four-month old girl on the mother’s hip and a twelve-month old boy in the stroller sucking on an empty bottle.

I asked the father questions that elicited half answers. I was only half listening anyway – wondering how long the little boy would survive in fuzzy, all-in-one, zip-up pajamas. I heard something like Oregon was home. South Carolina was where they dropped off their nephews. Staying with a sister in Beaufort until her boyfriend got violent. We pieced it together. A fight; ahhh — the bandaged arm. From Oregon; ahh — the out-of-place, too-warm pajamas.

Only the mother and the babies could fit in our car – babies who drooped like sacks of rice in my arms. No crying. No blinking. No squirming. They needed cooling off, a respite from the heat, a chance to figure out a plan. Gary saw the turquoise water of the swimming pool at the Quality Inn, pulled up and checked them in.

The next day our education continued. We learned that there are no homeless shelters in our county and that churches take turns housing women and children but they’re all full. We learned that if you are a homeless teenage father whose mother got married after you were born, the last name on your birth certificate doesn’t necessarily match the one on your social security card. And if you’ve never had the chance to drive a car, you don’t have a government issued photo ID. Identification would come in handy when your mother sends you on a four-day bus trip from Oregon to South Carolina to return two five-year-old nephews she can’t or doesn’t want to raise anymore. It would really come in handy when your money runs out and you apply for emergency assistance for your girlfriend and your two infants. All three of whom came along on the four day bus ride across the country to return the five year-olds nobody wanted.

It’s not that we thought getting a photo ID for a homeless teenage father from out of state would be easy. We’ve read the articles about low-income, elderly black voters in South Carolina who can no longer go to the polls because they’ve never had a government issued driver’s license or photo ID. What we learned, from helpful clerks at the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, is that this ID problem is easy to fix. If you’ve ever been arrested and have mug shots and fingerprints on file. The homeless teenage father from Oregon didn’t.

We’ve learned many things since Sunday. Like how free emergency room treatment for a knife wound is great but it doesn’t mean you can fill the ER doctor’s prescription for antibiotics and pain medicine. Maybe that’s why the lies started. The homeless teenage father probably was in pain. But he also had what he thought was an open-ended stay at an air-conditioned hotel with a nice TV and a separate bed for the babies. That was more appealing to him than following through with social services. Sleeping in until three each afternoon was more important than filling out paperwork to get a free bus ticket home to Oregon.

After three days of rides, meals, wake-up calls, advice, explanations and encouragement we gave up. Our feeble attempts were too little, too late. We know now that good judgment isn’t part of the day-to-day survival skills of an eighteen year old homeless father. A kid whose own mother would put him on a bus across country to dump nephews off to other relatives simply responds to whatever happens. He doesn’t plan. Even if it means he’ll be back out on highway 21 with a bandaged arm, pulling a suitcase and a girlfriend and two babies behind him.

Neither one of us wants to be one of those people who turns a blind eye and rationalizes cold-heartedness with examples just like this one. I’m a writer; I hate clichés like leading horses to water. To a certain extent, these too-young parents are playing games and exploiting every opportunity to delay responsibility. But their babies aren’t – which is why it broke our hearts to see the cop cars pulling up in front of the hotel we stopped paying for.

This story isn’t over; we don’t know what happened or if those little babies have found shelter. Every thunderclap makes me jump. We watch the thermometer each day with dread, hoping the web of lies includes family members the homeless teenage father never told us about.

It’s doubtful though. If we learned anything from him it is that there are no miracles. Isolated concern, however well intentioned, can’t solve problems like his. That’s why in a civilized, ethical society there is central government funded by taxes we all pay, no matter our ideology of personal responsibility. That’s why we need more money for social services and education, not less. It takes more than feeling sorry for infants hauled around like luggage. It takes more than a handout. A safety net that does its job requires shared, ongoing commitment and predictable funding.  A thousand points of light, however bright, won’t lead this teenage father home.

6 thoughts on “What Teresa and Gary learned from a homeless teenage father

    Susan Kammeraad-Campbell said:
    July 15, 2011 at 3:08 PM

    Oh my. … Oh my.


    Will said:
    July 15, 2011 at 3:16 PM

    Gut-wrenching…maddening…deeply frustrating and sad.


    Bruce Doneff said:
    July 15, 2011 at 3:49 PM

    As we’ve been discussing today with respect to the debt ceiling debate, I’m sure a lot of Rs will pray for this boy and his babies and it will all get better.

    Could not agree with you more that it takes more than individual, however well-intentioned but scattered “charity” to break the cycle these young people–all of them–were born into. It takes a village and a lot of concerted time and effort.

    Evidently, as a nation, we don’t have that commitment anymore. I suggest the wealthy who are getting wealthier and their aspirational cousins begin to invest in walls and barbed wire and security, because we are turning into a 3rd world nation and eventually the have-nots don’t want to have not much longer. Oh, that’s right, the haves will have their guns…


    Suzanne Larson said:
    July 16, 2011 at 6:04 AM

    Neglected children raise neglected children and when you throw in fear, hunger, anxiety disorders, ADD and drug use… the terrain gets even more foggy. What a pity. Thank you for sharing that experience in your usual, artful way.I still wish you would run for office! Love and Peace – Suzanne


    barbara kelly said:
    July 16, 2011 at 6:50 AM

    Teresa, Your blog needs a “must read button”. People (northern ones) tend to focus on the dispossed among us, particularly when the snow flies.

    The dystopic image you created of that family, their listless, innocent babies, being pushed along one of our town’s gateways, with temperatures in the triple digits is seared in my mind like one of Gary’s surreal photos: Refugees from the 21st century.

    From the comments, the choir was equally moved and unable to fathom how this can happen in a “Christian” country that extolls family values.

    Until we reflect on how we got here. So many reasons, but lack of national focus for world class education in every state in this nation, coupled with anachronistic policies regarding sex education and birth control certainly make my “Top 10” and will guarantee another lost generation.


    cristi said:
    July 25, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    you guys are good.., how many of us would have just driven by, felt a tang of pity and promptly forgotten the scene? or given them a handout to remedy our conscious and been on our way? that’s what our gov’t would have done, and as you frustratingly found out, have just confounded the problem.

    where does society even begin to climb out? barbara kelly is right on.


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