I met a friend for lunch over near Union Station and then decided to walk back home. It’s about 30 blocks so I knew I would find somebody! I stopped by So Others Might Eat (SOME) and picked up some information and then kept on snaking my way over to Dupont Circle. I came across a nice guy who was originally from Mexico out walking a couple of dogs. He took my card but said he preferred that I find someone else…so on I went.
I decided to stop by Tent City DC. When I arrived at the abandoned lot at 7th and R Streets I didn’t find anyone there. I walked around, yelled “hello, anybody home” but no voices came from any of the tents. Just then two young girls yelled over to me from outside the fenced in area where I was standing. “Hey, why are you guys staying in these tents?” I walked over and explained to them that I was not one of the people staying in the tents, but that they were protesting the fact that Parcel 42 was being earmarked for development into luxury condos instead of affordable housing like what was promised by the mayor’s office a few years ago.
I told them about my project and asked if I could give them my $10 for the day.
Cierra is 17 and Shaquan is almost 16. They are high school students who are working this summer at a youth camp. They are also two of the 463,000 children living in foster care in the US.
Shaquan has been in the system since she was three and has been in and out of group homes and families all of her life. “The system has got a lot of problems,” Shaquan says. “Every time you go to a new place you got to go through the whole screening process again.” Cierra has only been in foster care for about five years but even in that relatively short amount of time she has been shuffled between 6-8 families. Right now they are both living with Cierra’s sister for the summer, but soon they will go back to a foster family or group house.
They say that some foster families are only in it for the money. “They get a lot of money from the government and we don’t see any of it,” according to Shaquan. I played devil’s advocate a little and reminded them that the families also have a lot of costs that they may not see directly. The agreed that that was probably true, but they still felt like there were some inequities there.
I was deeply sadden as I talked to these smart, articulate young women. They have been forced to grow up much faster than others. They have felt unloved and unwanted at times and suffered through the pain that accompanies those emotions. “It’s hard,” Shaquan starts to say, “I used to blame other people for my actions, but I can’t blame nobody but myself. You got to keep your head up!” She went on to say that she was adopted by a family years ago and she “messed it all up.” She was referring to a woman named Ms. Theresa. I learned that in addition to adopting Shaquan, Ms. Theresa had also opened her home to Cierra. “Man, I wish I was back there now. I didn’t know how good I had it, but I messed up again,” Shaquan says.
I asked them what they were going to do with the $5 that each of them had in their hand. “Probably give it to someone else,” they said. “If I see a homeless person and I got money in my pocket, I give something,” Shaquan says.
This was one of those days that I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who I had met for a long time after the goodbyes. Both of these girls have so much to offer the world. They are smart. They are charismatic. They are strong yet sensitive and thoughtful at the same time. They are beautiful young women who have not had the easiest path to get to where they are today and admitted to having made some poor choices themselves. What impressed me most was their attitude. They could have said “poor me, why me?” But they didn’t. They accepted responsibility for their actions and their lives and were living in the present making the best out of the cards that they have been dealt. Keep your head up!