By Jevon Wilkes
At age 14, Adam* received notice from school administrators that a fellow classmate passed away. His response to this loss was: “We are more than classmates, we are family.”
Sean,16, is scared, experiencing homelessness, and enduring the challenges of finding employment. He has been living in a car and sometimes an abandoned building as he experiences high levels of mental health challenges.
Dena, 16, has been navigating life and medical care on her own prior to and during the pandemic. She has yet to have one night of good sleep while working two jobs to maintain housing.
For decades, we have been asking Adam, Sean, Dena, and thousands of other young people in California to recite their stories of vulnerability and trauma with one government entity after another.
What we have not been doing is listening to them.
As the Executive Director of California Coalition for Youth and Director of Youth Engagement at The California Children’s Trust, I have accompanied countless young people to our state Capitol to bare their souls to elected officials, hoping that by offering their experience, they’ll influence the people who have the power to create opportunities for youth to better themselves, their families, their peers, and their communities.
Yet, California remains the state with the highest number of youth experiencing homelessness in the U.S. Youth involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, the majority of whom are youth of color, are at greater risk for serious physical and mental health issues, creating immediate vulnerability to homelessness. 25% of young people exiting the juvenile justice system will experience homelessness. While California leads the nation in wealth, it simultaneously has among the lowest youth opportunity metrics in the nation. Though these statistics are alarming, work is being done to change them, and at a time when it is needed most.
As everyone knows, we are in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. Here in California, over 14,000 unaccompanied youth, many of whom are parenting children of their own, were experiencing homelessness prior to the pandemic. In addition, approximately 260,000 students, 60,000 foster youth, and hundreds of youth soon to exit the juvenile justice system are also at risk of homelessness and a lifetime of hardship. Their risk for taking their own life by suicide is high.
So now more than ever, we need to do more than simply ask young people experiencing complex trauma and at great risk for a range of negative outcomes to tell their stories yet again. I have shared my own story and been an ally to many more who offer their own. It is simply not enough to hold hearings, create task forces, and launch planning processes.
We know their stories. We have heard their heartache. We have seen their pain. What we haven’t done is act on what they have told us.
We know what they need and we know what we need to do.
Young people need safe, stable housing. They need jobs paying living wages. They need access to education and training and support to complete them and go on to careers in growing fields. They need a sense of trust, autonomy, independence, and identity to heal and thrive.
What will it take to accomplish these things? We must reimagine, reinvent, and transform the systems currently serving young people in California. We must prioritize physical and mental health care, social and emotional development, while meeting them where they are and supporting and championing them as they work toward their dreams. The California Children’s Trust, a statewide coalition of hundreds of individuals and organizations, is working every day to do just that.
Our greatest opportunity is our greatest challenge: serving, investing in, and loving our youth. They have shown us time and again that they can and will radiantly thrive in adulthood if they get the support and love they need, despite the fact that our state is increasingly exposed as the poster child for inequality.
More than half of the children in our state are now covered by MediCal. If we were really listening, they wouldn’t have to receive a diagnosis in order to be supported in addressing the challenges they face. If we were really listening, we’d offer them what they say they need—allies who look like them and have experienced what they have experienced—and we would ensure that we could pay for it through MediCal, the powerful safety net that they are entitled to.
And if we were really listening, we would learn, hold, and act upon the clear fact that is young people’s wisdom and intelligence in the face of adversity and that must provide the foundation of every child serving system. If we were really listening, we would know that their anger isn’t mental illness. If we were really listening we would know that the mental health challenges so many young people face are not expressions of pathology, but a direct result of the fact that it is hard out there. We would be training therapists to see and honor young people’s struggle, recognize their potential, and partner with them in pursuing their dreams, rather than diagnosing and medicating them.
We don’t have time to spare. We must know, be, and do better to improve, empower, and transform our communities, our nation, our world.
We must be patient and bold in our thoughts and actions as we move in love and mindfulness toward equity and justice for all—and persistent in recognizing and reiterating that these are not unachievable ideals. They must become the basic operating instructions of child serving systems.
What if MediCal named itself as anti-racist? What if we built a health care system for people, by people, where the economic benefit of the health care industry showed up in the paychecks of people who look like the children on MediCal (87% of whom are non-white). Not only should this happen— it must.
We must pivot from simply hearing and recording young people’s stories of vulnerability and complex trauma, to truly listening and learning how to create opportunities for radiant change and a brighter future for you, for me, and for them.
*Need to talk? Know a youth in need? The California Youth Crisis Line is available 24x7x365 - call or text us at 1-800-843-5200 or visit our website to chat.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
Jevon Wilkes is the Executive Director of California Coalition for Youth and Director of Youth Engagement at The California Children’s Trust.