04/23/2012 06:12 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2012

A Homeless Bystander

Juan lay there in a hoody and a baseball cap, looking for all the world like a student taking a nap. He was handsome, scrappy, hard-working and smart (he had just breezed through his high school equivalency test at Covenant House). He was beloved and admired, and a doting younger brother. Wide-eyed and sweet-natured, Juan had been homeless, abandoned in his childhood by many. He tried to survive on his own and eventually found his way to Covenant House as a teenager, where it's fair to say the other kids and staff adored him.

At any moment, we imagined, he could turn on that streetwise smile, the smooth delivery, and charm us with his special potion of charisma and confidence.

But no. For weeks before now, Juan had lain in a hospital bed, a bystander in a sidewalk shooting in Newark, New Jersey. A cruel bullet left him bravely fighting for his life for weeks. His bedside was flooded with visitors of an unconventional family -- scores of other homeless teenagers, mentors and advocates.

Homelessness, you see, puts a bull's eye on the backs of kids. And I am tired beyond words of the violence and the suffering that results.

Al-Tariq Shabazz, Juan's counselor for the past two years at Covenant House, stood by Juan's open coffin and channeled the grief in the room, filled with other homeless young people, and the volunteers and staff of Covenant House. His eulogy was a prayer to stop the violence, mourning our sad new reality -- Juan would never walk through the shelter's doors and tell us that he's gotten a job, or his own apartment or that he's getting married or having his first child. Mr. Al-Tariq blinked back tears, reminding us of our loss, of our kids' loss: the young brothers in the room can't benefit from Juan's special ways any longer. When Juan spoke, they had listened. They dressed like him. They followed him wherever they could, but on this, his last journey, they can't.

To the bereft grownups in the room, Mr. Al-Tariq had marching orders to banish the despair: "Let's remember Juan's smile and his potential so that when we see another child with that same smile and that same potential, we will work like hell to prevent the squandering of that potential and beauty."

And for the many homeless teenagers standing vigil across the room, Mr. Al-Tariq begged them to live, as a tribute to Juan. "Nothing short of living can prove your love for Juan. No gang color, no flag, no acts of violence, nothing but your life lived to the fullest, dedicated to truth and positivity will do," he said. "You gotta live and do the things that the good brother Juan never got to do, raise a family, educate yourself, travel and learn to truly love life. If you love Juan, become successful, build a park, write a book, build a building or start a business and dedicate it to him and his family."

Tears fell from Mr. Al-Tariq's eyes -- and mine -- as he delivered his elegy for the boy he called his beautiful lost son. I looked out at those kids, those adults, inside the funeral home in Newark and I could tell he was reaching them. And I clung to the idea that these kids -- filled with dreams and enormous promise -- might find a way to use this tragedy to stay off the streets and invite hope back into their lives. I prayed then, and I do now, that none of these kids will try to honor Juan's death by picking up the gun that claimed it. And with each passing day, I see the resilience of young people in action. They are bounding off to work and school, mourning their lost brother, but determined to move forward. But we -- the adults who run our world -- have to give them the opportunities to do so. And if we do -- if we offer homeless young people apprenticeships and jobs and auditions and admissions to college -- we can help turn one of the darkest hours at Covenant House into one of the most hopeful.

Juan and the other kids who have lost their lives on the streets have taken a piece of us with them. That is partly why this hurts so much. But I believe we keep a piece of them with us, too, and I hope it's the part that haunts and inspires us to create a better world for the next generation. No more guns, or gangs, or street pimps, or bullets, or bullies. No more bulls' eyes on the backs of street kids.

As for our beautiful Juan, I pray he rests in peace. He has a home at last, though it wasn't the one he, or we, dreamed he'd have today.

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