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.