CORVALLIS, Ore. - The rising number of homeless youths is one of America's dirty little secrets, and caring for this country's displaced children will become increasingly difficult without new efforts at communication.
That's the conclusion of an Oregon State University professor who has spent part of the last three years studying homeless youths in the Pacific Northwest.
Natalie Dollar, an assistant professor of speech communication at OSU, began working with homeless youths in 1994, ironically, the international Year of the Family. A majority of those homeless - an estimated 75 percent - are on the streets because they were physically or sexually abused, or neglected by their families, Dollar said.
They want their story told, she emphasized. And it rarely happens.
"I've been to many town meetings where concerned citizens discuss the homeless and it's pretty easy to conclude that the process is so adult-centered that these youths don't have a voice," Dollar said. "Their points are rarely analyzed and they often feel forced to use profanity or to talk loudly to make themselves heard.
"The adults, the social service providers and the government agencies all want to talk logistics," she added. "These youths want to talk about personal issues, like what it feels like when your Dad beats you. The end result is that they just bypass each other."
Dollar said that creating some different settings may help bridge a communication gap that seems to grow wider every day. On one side, she says, is a bureaucracy that is process-oriented, under-funded, inconsistent and economically driven through the growing privatization of centers and health services. On the other side are literally thousands of youths, categorized in one umbrella group called "homeless," even though they face a range of problems, from physical and sexual abuse to addiction, malnutrition and exposure.
An important first step, Dollar said, is to provide some sort of shelter for the youths.
"There are some very real health concerns," she said, "but beyond that, there are some societal demands that require a place of residency. To get a job, you need an address. To go to school, you need an address. There just aren't enough facilities around to make a dent in the homeless population.
"In Seattle, they're building a new stadium and planning to tear down the Kingdome," pointed out Dollar, a self-proclaimed sports fanatic. "Why not turn the Kingdome into a massive shelter?"
Dollar said her research on communication shows some fascinating differences between homeless youths and mainstream society. The concept of family is important to both, she said, but the definitions may vary significantly.
"I've talked to parents about their kids and some of the responses are frightening," Dollar said. "Some parents see their children as objects that need to be controlled. If you talk to them about the rights of a child, their response is often, 'they're only 13 years old...what kind of rights should they have?'"
Dollar specializes in the study of what she calls marginalized cultures and has conducted research on sports fans, Deadheads (followers of the band, The Grateful Dead), and homeless youths. Much of her research on the homeless has been conducted in Seattle, with fellow communication specialist Brooke Zimmers, who works there with street youth.
Most studies of the homeless are rooted in sociology, psychology and other fields that include social services. Dollar, who said she was inspired to apply her communication expertise to the issue, discovered three concepts that homeless youths consider vital: self, family and community. The concepts are widely acknowledged throughout society, she added, but have different meanings for the homeless.
"For troubled youth, the concept of self is problematic," Dollar said. "They see themselves as humans who have chosen to leave their family. They want the rights of everyone else, but they constantly are told - directly or indirectly - that they are undeserving, somehow less than human.
"Ask homeless youths about their concept of family and their vision is often of abuse, drugs and neglect," she added. "They're on the streets, they say, because they are looking for support as individuals, for self-esteem as human beings. On the streets, they create their own families. It isn't unusual to have them introduce someone as the "mother" of the group, or describe each other as brother and sister."
Community is an abstract but import concept, Dollar said. Many of her street acquaintances describe themselves as "houseless," not as "homeless." Their home is the city and its people. They know what social services are provided and where meals can be received. They know which adult social workers are helpful. They organize. And they are well aware of the laws that dictate their behavior.
"The issue of homeless youth in the long run is a cross-cultural communication problem," Dollar said. "We've been trying to approach the problem as one big American culture and getting these youths to live 'our way,' and they've been trying to convince us to live in their world. Neither is going to work.
"The solution may be to develop some models somewhere between Beaver Cleaver idealism and rebel radicalism," she added. "We tend to treat people all the same and there are so many differences. The problem of homelessness took years to create and it will take years to correct. But it can be done and communication is one of the keys."