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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Insecurity – Stories of Growing Up

05/11/16 03:39 PM | Laura Winn | Families, Poverty, Homelessness


Security. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. I grew up in a home marked by addiction, dysfunction, and for a period of time, poverty. While I knew my parents loved me, my father’s alcoholism set the tone for much of my childhood. As I got older, left home, and engaged in my own much healthier relationships, I thought I had escaped unscathed. In many ways, my sibling took away some of the more common traits of being raised by an alcoholic parent, but I didn’t seem to carry these with me.

Then, about a year ago, I had my own child. I found myself engaging in certain behaviors I did not expect. I like to have his room just so. I insist on making all his food with organic meat and produce I prepare myself. I constantly tell my son that I love him. I have a hard time letting him cry. I know some of this is common to all parents, but I’m starting to realize that much of what I’m doing is motivated by the insecurity I felt as a child. I don’t want my son to carry those feelings too.

Back in December 2013, the New York Times released a five-part series by Andrea Elliott entitled Invisible Child. It profiles a young girl living in a homeless shelter in New York City. Her name is Dasani, and I think about her often. I also think about her baby sister, mentioned briefly in the articles. Baby Lele is under a year old. She lives in a 520-square-foot-room with her seven siblings and her parents where mold lines the walls and an open bucket serves as a toilet. A hair dryer propped up by her crib warms her at night. She shares the floor with mice and roaches. She is most often cared for by her 11-year-old sister. During the time the family is profiled, a baby living down the hall dies.

I contrast this experience with my son’s. Of course, I’m struck by the privilege he has, but I’m also struck by my own desire, as a parent, to protect him and provide security. I know that some of these little things I do will likely make very little difference in the long run, but my hope is that when taken together, it will help him feel safe each night as he goes to sleep. Now that I’m a parent, I know that Dasani’s parents want that security for their children too. Like my parents though, addiction, the burden of poverty, and lack of ability to provide the essentials undermines a sense of security. What particularly strikes me, though, is the failure of the shelter system to help make up for that gap. The article is riddled with system failures – from failed inspections that are never addressed, identified sexual predators who are never removed, and basic services promised, but never provided.

In my mind, I place my own son in that crib with Baby Lele, and I see that so much of what I do isn’t necessary for him to thrive. I see that some of her own experiences can lead to resilience and strength. But, I know that she has some significant challenges to overcome, and statistically her future looks bleak. And, she is not living in isolation – she is deeply mired in a social service system that can impact her future. Yet, already at such a young age, it has failed her.

Articles such as “Invisible Child” take a positive step in bringing awareness to these issues, but it is certainly not enough. Funding is also critical to give providers the tools they need to make an impact. But, without training and supports for service providers to better understand what will make a difference in Dasani’s family’s lives, we can’t hope for much change. I will continue to think about Dasani, Baby Lele, and the rest of the family for a long time. But, thinking isn’t enough. And, while we languish in budget and policy debates – citing parental responsibility, dependency, and deficits – Baby Lele will continue to grow up deeply affected by the trauma of homelessness.

Learn more about resiliency by registering for t3's upcoming course: "Young Parents with Young Children: Supporting Two Generations"

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Image by Eduardo Merille (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Laura Winn

Written by Laura Winn

Laura Pannella Winn is an applied social scientist interested in health care policy and its intersection with substance use, mental health, and homeless services. As an Associate at the Center for Social Innovation, she has led the implementation of many related federally funded research and training grants. She currently serves as the Deputy Project Director of Project Amp, an intervention research project aimed at preventing substance use disorders in adolescents though a brief mentorship with young adults in recovery. Laura received her master’s in social sciences from the University of Chicago. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC with her husband and two children. Her work is informed by a family history of addiction.