Young people fighting in school, dropping out of school or joining gangs and committing crimes are a frequent topic of discussion in local media and public forums. There’s a lot of talk about increasing programs for youth, like parks and rec, and getting the “faith community” involved. While I agree that it’s a great idea to increase positive, productive activities for young people, I don’t agree that it’s the answer, because it’s addressing the symptoms, not the roots of the problem.
Doing street outreach, I meet homeless youth and young adults, and I hear their stories. These are young people who were fighting in school a few years ago, who dropped out, and some of them have been in gangs. They’re the kind of kids you read about in newspaper stories — a few years down the road, on the street, in and out of jail. Some come from families where they endured abuse — physical, emotional, sexual. Some come from families with mental illness or addiction, or both. Some are mentally ill or addicted themselves, or both. Some young men were kicked out by mommas who got a new boyfriend who saw them as competition. Angry young men and women. Wounded young men and women. I’ve yet to meet one who said, “If I just had a program…” But almost all of them have said, “I just wanted a family…” (They still do.)
Don’t get me wrong. After-school programs, tutoring programs, sports programs, church programs — all are vitally important to help at-risk youth. Those programs can provide a safety net, a safe haven. We absolutely need them. But what we really need is strong and healthy families for all children — and young adults, and old adults, too. What we really need to is to be willing to love our neighbors (and everybody is our neighbor) enough to get in their business and find out why Johnny is fighting at school and why Mary is dropping out and why Lucy is coming to school hungry and why Darius is falling asleep in class every day. And then, find out what we can do to help their family. And if and when families are unable to care for their own children, we need to be willing to step up and say, “We will be your family.” And then do it. Programs are great. But we need families.