Homeless teens make the news… because they’re upper class?

Michael Oher at Baltimore Ravens Training Camp...

It took every Tuohy (and some friends!) to make Michael Oher a success. (Image via Wikipedia)

First it was Michael Oher, the formerly homeless teen who made it into the NFL after an upper class Memphis family “adopted” him and nurtured him with many hours a day of coaching, mentoring, tutoring, and even personal shopping assistance. A year later, The Blind Side author Michael Lewis said what he had found most amazing was not Michael Oher’s story in itself, but how many stories like Michael Oher’s he found in the world of pro sports.

Now we’re hearing about a cluster of newly homeless teens in upper middle class Fairfax, Virginia where, (with apologies to Garrison Keillor) pretty much all of the children are above average, given that the county is one of only two in the United States iwith a median income of more than $100,000. * The stresses of our extended “recession” have taken their toll even in Fairfax.

A year ago, astonished news reports discovered that middle class parents were taking out their financial fears and job anxieties on  their children, with dreadful results on the youngsters’ academic achievement.

Now, The Washington Post reports, parents in a community as wealthy as Fairfax are  splitting up under the strain. Some are going so far as to take off, abandoning their kids to do whatever they can to make it on their own.
Some of us who live and work in the dysfunctional underworld of our nation’s unacknowledged class divide have been watching this kind of family behavior for a long time. But when we suggest that the stresses of poverty might be driving any part of it, we’re usually treated to finger-wagging lectures about middle-class morality.

Looks like the morality comes and goes with the middle-class paycheck.

The Washington Post reported over the slow news days of Christmas week that the Fairfax County school system is working hard to make sure it not only provides the educational supports that federal law requires for homeless kids, but also places for these newly homeless kids to live, since children can’t possibly succeed in school when they don’t have stable home environments.

I’m entirely in agreement. But in the city where I work, the school department has had to build its educational plans for the last decade around the expectation that 5 in every 100 students at the middle school closest to my office will be homeless. The “10-year Plan to End Homelessness,” reliant like everything else on what grantors want to fund, is providing shelter to adults with mental illnesses and substance abuse issues. And not to disrespect the grown-ups with chronic needs, but they’ve had their chance … or, in the case of those with severe and persistent mental illnesses, their illness stole the best chance they ever had.

The kids deserve a first shot. And not just the kids in Fairfax. People in Fairfax are pulling together around their homeless kids because they believe that if they help them today, they will become productive, tax-paying adults.

The same is true for the kids who live in the woods and under the bridges and behind boarded up windows in your town, who come to school in dirty clothing because they can’t wash it, who fall asleep in class because wherever they lay their head isn’t warm enough or safe enough to really rest.

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress …” (James 1:27)

How can your church … your friends … your family … help one homeless child graduate from high school?

Related links:

The Plight of the High School Homeless, by Kevin Sieff, Washington Post, Dec. 27, 2010

On Point: Boston’s WBUR interviews author Michael Lewis and Leigh Ann Tuohy, on whom Sandra Bullock’s character is based.

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock

* That’s median income, not median household income or median family income! This means that the median household income for an individual in Fairfax automatically lands in the top fifth of family incomes in the U.S.

About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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