Spare Some Change... Hope for Homeless Youth
By Michael Leoni
Of the nearly 2 million kids living on our streets, 650,000 of them are under the age of 15. These statistics are staggering but what is more shocking is the amount of Americans that are unaware of this crisis. What I have found to be the biggest misconception is that these kids want to be on the streets, that it is their choice to be homeless. That could not be further from the truth.
In fact, the majority of these kids run away because they are victims of abuse (sexual, physical and/or mental). Many of them are removed from their homes by the authorities for their own safety, then placed in foster care or group homes until they are 18. Most of the kids I've met have run away before they were 18 because the situation the state placed them in was more abusive than the one before. When a kid runs away to the streets, they are forced into the inevitable position of figuring out how to find food, secure a safe place to sleep and most importantly, avoid the predators to survive on the streets. Did you know that within 48 hours of being on the streets, 42% of kids turn to prostitution?
"Timmy" and his 2 brothers were drugged and molested by their father from as early as 5 years old. When "Timmy" was 13 his mother found out, kidnapped her sons and ran. The father was well connected with a local judge and had the mother arrested. She spent almost 3 months in custody. "Timmy" ran away and within 2 months he began prostituting. He has been on the streets ever since.
At 8 years old "Steven" and his mom were on their way to Disneyland. They stopped at a rest-stop and "Steven" went in to use the restroom. When he came out his mom was gone, disappeared without a trace. Picked up by the local authorities, "Steven" was ultimately placed in foster care. Two years and four placements later, he ran away. Today he is 18, still struggling to survive on the streets.
Their stories are not all the same. While they may have similarities, these are ultimately individuals: human beings with hopes, dreams and the desire for a life.
When asked, "If your past didn't matter and you could be anything in the world right now, what would it be?" a huge majority of the kids I've interviewed say, "I don't know, I've never thought about that" or "no one's ever asked me that question before."
I have been a director and writer for the past 10 years and the bulk of what I do requires imagination, creativity and visualization. To speak with a kid that never day dreamed about what they wanted to be, left me speechless. How can I give this gift back to them? How could I convince them that they are worth something? That if they believed in themselves, loved themselves and focused their attention, they could do or be anything in the world?
I realized that first, you need to talk to them, get to know them and let them know you care. Then, you have to continue to show up. It's as if someone else has to believe in them first before they can even approach the idea that they could possibly be worth something.
My connection to homeless kids began back in 2001 as a teenager living in New York. It was right after 9/11 and I lost my job and my apartment in what seemed like an instant. With local businesses closing one right after the other, the search for a job became impossible. I turned to the streets and saw a path of self-destruction that looked all too real: homelessness, drugs, fear and loneliness. The road ahead looked desolate, dark and frightening. Since then, I have been asked a million times what it was that steered me in the opposite direction. At my core, I believe it was the passion for my art: the writing and directing of theatre and film that saved me. I found an apartment, a job and began interviewing street kids. I needed to know how they got there and what it was that kept them on the streets. The people I met and the stories I heard of neglect, violence, abuse and abandonment, absolutely astonished me. I journaled their stories, researched statistics and realized that I needed to do something.
I created a stage play called The Playground, a Rock Music-infused piece inspired by the lives of homeless kids and teenage runaways. The Playground debuted on stage in Los Angeles, received great reviews and continued to run at least once a year for the next five consecutive years.
Now, The Playground has been developed into a powerful, edge-of-your-seat, feature film that takes us beyond the glamorous world of Hollywood and into the gritty lives of LA's street kids. The infusion of Rock and Hip-Hop music creates an entryway into the lonely corridors of the kids' minds and illuminates their hopes and dreams of a better life. (To learn more about The Playground visit: http://www.theplaygroundmovie.com)
Since its development as a feature film, The Playground has taken on a life of its own and has given birth to Spare Some Change, an on-going media campaign and social movement to raise awareness and provide life empowering and enrichment programs in the lives of homeless youth.
In my experience the only media exposure this issue seems to get demonizes the kids and portrays them as troubled. It is my hope to change that and to show the nation who they are and what is really happening on our streets in America. For me, these projects are about exposing the truth and proving that there is hope for our kids.
The Spare Some Change mission is to engage, enlighten, and empower homeless kids to create change in their lives and to provide direction toward a stable future within mainstream society.
It is my belief that if you tap into a kid's imagination, expand their creativity and fuel their passion, amazing and unprecedented things will manifest. It is for those reasons that one of our primary programs is the Artistic Mentoring Outreach Program. The goal is to bring positive influences back into the lives of homeless kids. In its early stages, the program includes having kids (that are transitioning off the streets) working directly with filmmakers, directors, designers, writers, photographers, etc., who will be mentoring them and exposing them to the unlimited potential a human being can posess when they are free to be creative.
Our goals include:
> Continuing to use media and the arts to heighten the nation's level of awareness and create a momentum for change;
> To fundraise in order to build Outreach centers where the programs can be facilitated;
> To create life empowering seminars and workshops;
> To assign mentors from varying fields to work directly with the kids.
Youth homelessness is a national crisis! The good news is, there is hope! Get involved. Do something! Spare some change -- spread some hope.