Homeless Youth Law Clinic wrote -
Our inspiration: While in graduate school at the University Of Connecticut School Of Social Work, I was hired at a residential treatment center in Hartford, CT. Most of the youth there were considered “throwaways,” with deep emotional and physical scars that would last a life time, a couple of steps beyond the foster care system, institutional care. One of those “inmates” (this is how they referred to one another) I met was a sixteen your old, beautiful Puerto Rican girl, “Sheena” who counselors believed to be “stupid” and needed “to find a husband” because that is the “best she will do.” She intimidated me the first time I met her, chillin’ with her friends, whispering in corners, as teens girls are wont to do. She wore black lipstick, possessed long curly jet black hair, and her smile and infectious laughter lit up a room.
She barely spoke most days and the lead social workers informed us her IQ was miniscule, feeble, bordering on mental retardation; she couldn’t read or write, form sentences, or even think. She grew up on the street with her mother, and was constantly housed in homeless shelters, in abject poverty, most of us knew nothing about. She gravitated towards me eventually, since I treated all of the “inmates” with respect and kindness, laced with humor or sarcasm that was masked with deep affection.
She began to trust me, as opposed to other counselors, especially male counselors, who made sexist and blatantly hostile sexual comments toward her, which bordered on sexual assault. Her intellectual functioning as far as I could tell was just fine. She appeared immature, at times child-like, and she craved attention, and responded to kindness in a way that many foster teens do who haven’t had much. With delight.
One morning she ran toward me as I entered the building to begin my shift, lacking sleep and coffee; she hurriedly asked me to accompany her to the “music room.” At the “Institute” there were vast resources; it was formerly a treatment center for the rich and famous and it showed. I assured her we would go, once I found some caffeine.
We arrived at the building, connected to the treatment center, through tunnels, and entered a tiny auditorium, instruments strewn around the outer edges of the room. She demanded that I sit in the auditorium.
“Why” I asked.
“Just do it!” She frustratingly told me, smirking at me, and snuck behind a large, torn, beige curtain. I heard noise, and a chair move, pushed and sliding, papers shuffled, the sound of a door opening. I nervously awaited. “Something is about to be broken” I thought to myself. Suddenly, the sound of a piano emanated from behind the curtain.
“Sheena, what are you doing? I called to her. Did you turn the radio on?” I said, and stood up nervous. The music stopped.
I said, “What are you doing?” I smirked. “Playing the radio?”
“No.” She giggled and laughed. “Shhhhh….” She said. “Just be quiet!”
A minute passed, and again I heard shuffling. I sat in the auditorium, waiting, confused, listening, and intently aware. There it was again. I recognized it. Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” filled the morning summer air in that tiny auditorium. I sat in my uncomfortable chair, stunned, precipitously realizing this young woman, dismissed as just another casualty of American Apartheid, was playing the piano behind that curtain, beautifully, and perfectly.
She was fucking playing Beethoven.
I snuck up to the curtain, and peeked behind it, and watched her play. She stared methodically at her hands, closing her eyes intermittently, until she saw me, and then jumped up, angry, and grabbed hold of me and shoved me back out to the auditorium, pushing me back into my seat.
“Stay put!” She screamed.
“I can’t play if someone is watching!”
She giggled again, proud of herself, happily sharing a talent. She played other songs, sometimes just half of them, classical, and pop songs, Bette Midler’s “The Rose,” a beautiful rendition of that slow methodical song.
As we walked back to the teen floor, she told me there was a piano at the homeless shelter where she spent the longest time with her mom, and she watched a man who lived at the shelter play. “And I just learned it.” She said shrugging.
“He taught you to play?” “No, I just watched him play, and you know, just learned.” “I don’t know!” She said and laughed.
I wish I could say this is a happy ending, but the truth is I don’t know. The Institute closed one month later, in shocking fashion. I bought her records and tapes for her to practice, but I don’t know if she continued to play or what she did with it, or where she is living. I do know she taught me about prejudice, and holding too tightly to a narrative, costs lives. I would never do that again.
Our Purpose: Serving youth in solving their legal issues and preventing Portland youth from experiencing homelessness and its collateral consequences.
Our Story: John recently had taken the bar exam and worked in public interest appellate litigation and began volunteering at a Portland youth homeless drop in center, New Avenues for Youth. At the drop in center, John contemplated advising youth on legal issues or questions they might have about the legal system. Many of the youth he met grew up in foster care or destructive broken homes, were adopted, or kicked out of their homes because of their sexuality, or another reason that did not fit well within their family.
He swiftly realized he was the only lawyer who had actually engaged with them in their lifetime. The issues they faced were not limited to advice, but legal problems that needed addressing, barriers to their homelessness, to education and work, so that they might make the leap from life on the streets, or housing in a shelter, to one of independence, in a home, a job, or school. His engagement with youth has led us to establish the Homeless Youth Law Clinic (HYLC), a 501(c)3 nonprofit that will focus on serving youth. This work has only scratched the surface of the high need that currently exists in Portland, the 10th highest homeless youth population by city in the US.
Now the good stuff… We have been volunteering at the New Avenues for Youth drop in center since March 1, 2014. In that time we have achieved the following:
Helped 50 youth deal with 67 legal problems. That number will continue to rise as we expand our capacity.
- Represented youth in expungement hearings, access to their biological children, debt relief, housing, police harassment, helped youth gain permanent legal status in the U.S., assisted a youth in setting up her own apparel company, and helped several youth try to find their biological parents after being adopted or sent to foster care. This list is a snapshot of our case work with youth.
- Created a Know Your Rights clinic with Portland Parent Union, whose goal is to end the school to prison pipeline, and make schools for children and teens a place of learning, rather than a pipeline to the criminal justice system. Our next step is to represent youth in suspension, expulsion hearings and special education hearings.
How you can help… become a Barrier Breaker! Just a little goes a long way to ensure HYLC reaches 100 youth. Donating any amount furthers our ability to remove barriers to independence. Your gift translates to service hours helping clients like Jamie – who is launching her own business – or other youth who want to access higher education, housing, family and job training.
We thank you for reading our story and considering a gift to our project. Your support means another youth will have an advocate at their side.