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Amy L. Freeman Headshot

What If Your Safety Net Doesn't Feel Safe?

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When surrounded by friends and family on whom one can count for support of every kind, it's hard to imagine the downward spiral that can land someone on the street. Friends ask me how someone can utterly alienate that support network, and whether it's always someone suffering from mental illness or fighting an addiction. Unsurprisingly, I have no easy answers.

Today, I'd like to share with you an odd little story about someone recently in trouble. Despite having no good answers, I hope I raise a few good questions:

Last month, my teenaged daughter texted me from school: "'Steven' had a bad fight with his parents. They kicked him out." I had never met Steven, and asked her for some details. Texted, they were kind of sketchy, but it sounded like a dispute over college apps had escalated into ugly, and he had walked out/been thrown out.

"Can I tell him to come to our house for dinner?" she asked.

I flashed on Bethesda Cares' low-demand approach to people in need, which is pretty much the way I live, too. So rightly or wrongly, I decided not to question him too closely. "Of course. But he has to tell his parents where he is and that he is safe."

She agreed, he agreed and they showed up around 3:30. He looked disheveled. "Pardon my hair," he said by way of greeting. "But I slept in a car last night."

I was dubious. Teens are not always reliable sources of information about anything, including their own lives, but I offered him a shower, which he accepted. While he cleaned up, she asked if he could stay over.

I debated what to do. I already knew he is from a nice suburban neighborhood, and attends a tony private school. I didn't know his home situation, but I was not about to send him back to an abusive situation, if that is what he had fled. I had no idea if he is a drug user, or what demons are in his head. I didn't know if he'd called other friends or neighbors for help, and been turned down.

I do trust my daughter's judgment in friends. And I did believe he needed a safe haven, at least for a few hours.

But he was a kid. Seventeen. Nearly an adult, but still a kid.

What to do? Call his parents? He had shown me the text he had sent them telling them where he was, although he said they had not responded. Call social services? Too extreme. Finally, I contacted the head of his school, who was oddly unruffled by the news of the riff. He said he'd be in touch with the boy's parents, and took my contact information.

But his parents did not call me.

In the meantime, after his shower, I invited Steven into the kitchen and listened to him as I cooked. He shared a few details of his situation with me -- "Sleeping in a car is really cold" -- but I did not push. We all had dinner together and, other than discussing his plan to go back home after school the next day, kept the conversation light. He spent the night in our guest room, and came back to the kitchen for breakfast this morning. "Great comforter," he said. "Thanks." I nodded. "It would work great in a car," he continued.

That was my limit. I put my hand on his arm, waited until he looked at me. I spoke in what I hoped was a really firm but kind tone: "No, Steven. No more sleeping in cars. That's not safe, it is not a good answer, and it is not your only answer. Please. Don't do that again." I asked if he'd take my cell phone number, promised I'd take him in any time between now and the end of time, and was glad when he agreed.

I've checked in on him since. He seems to be doing okay. But among the many things that trouble me about this incident was his willingness to sleep in a car. On the surface, it looked like he made a choice. But I don't buy that. He wasn't choosing between "home" or "car" because home did not feel like an option to him. He didn't choose a night of homelessness. The problem is, he felt like he had no choice.