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“I don’t think that most people realize how safe they are on a regular basis,” says Orion, dressed in a tailored suit sitting on a giant leather couch in his living room. “For most people, when something goes wrong, they always have something to fall back on. I never had that growing up.” Safety and security are just a few things on a long list of basics that were absent from Orion’s childhood. He never had birthday parties or new back-to-school clothes. Sometimes he didn’t even have clean clothes.
In fact, for three months prior to coming to our transitional living home, Orion was living on the NY subway in the middle of winter. He was one of the City’s 86,000 homeless students.
Now 20-years-old, Orion got his first taste of consistent safety and security at our aptly named “Safe Haven.” It’s a home for formerly homeless youth that fills needs which most of us take for granted in our daily lives. Beyond food, shelter, and security, Safe Haven gives residents a chance at a childhood, a luxury most of the 12 residents (ages 14-21) never experienced before. The kids have bedrooms for the first time ever. There is a TV and a videogame console in the living room, a keyboard for playing music or writing songs, and magazines on the coffee table. One resident is making tea in the kitchen, while another is editing videos of his skateboarding tricks on his laptop. It’s the traditional life of a teen, but these casual comforts were not possible for Orion and his housemates growing up.
Orion recalls bouncing around between various homeless shelters and subsidized housing as a child with his brother and mom, until she was deported to Dominica, Antilles when Orion was only 14. The brothers were left to fend for themselves.
Without a legal adult to vouch for them, they were not allowed to have rooms in the homeless shelter, so they slept in the lobby. For food money, they would steal cologne and other hygiene products from drug stores and sell them to local bodegas for $5 each. This was their only source of income.
Eventually, Orion went to stay with his father, but he experienced abuse and neglect. “You become so used to it after a while that you start to expect it and you’re constantly on guard,” he explains. “Eventually you just give up. I was basically starving during that time.” He went to stay with his sister, but was treated as another mouth to feed. “Rather than be a burden, I just left one day. I didn’t know where I would go, but I just told her a date I was going and I left.” It was the middle of the New York winter and Orion had no place to sleep but the train.
The constant moving around, the inconsistency, and the anxiety took their toll. He would stay at the library at school for as long as he could and try to lose himself in the books he was reading, but the effort to close out the depressing circumstances of his adolescence was also closing him off from hope and possibility.
After a brief stop at a homeless shelter, Orion was referred to Safe Haven where he was accepted and given his own room for the first time. “I had no idea it would be like this. I was surprised that I would have my own space. I wouldn’t have to worry all the time. The staff here helps you with anything. They are always there for you to talk to. You can really open up to them,” he adds.
More than just a home, Safe Haven provides the services that help residents like Orion unpack some of the accumulated stress of never having a place to call home or having a consistent, loving caretaker. There is art therapy, counseling, and support planning for the future.
“Once I was walking in a suburban area and I saw a guy with a house and a white picket fence. I asked him, ‘How do you get that life?’ He said I just have to stay in school.”
There was a time where a fairy tale vision of the future was out of reach for Orion, but Safe Haven staff committed to helping him beat the odds. They work to build real pathways connecting the present to future goals for youth. At Safe Haven, residents finally have the opportunity to figure out who they are, what makes them unique, what they might want in a career or an education, where they might want to live, and how they might craft the life they ultimately want. Orion and his housemates now have goals and realistic plans for reaching them.
Until coming to Safe Haven, Orion was someone who had largely been at the mercy of outside forces. Now he has the opportunity to consider the kind of society he’d like to see, and what role he could play in bringing it to life.
“I find the City’s current homeless epidemic to be so disappointing,” says Orion. “There are people and companies that make millions and billions of dollars. I don’t understand how they can invest in superficial things when there are homeless kids.”
Orion is investigating ways to make his voice and opinion heard. He is looking forward to potentially joining the Army which he hopes would allow him to get an affordable education and a steady income. He’s also considering studying engineering or animation because he loves technology and drawing.
While he doesn’t have every step figured out yet, he finally has the space – a safe space – to dream up his ideal future and the resources to make it a reality.