"I wish someone had told me that back then!"
November 18, 2010 9:37 PM   Subscribe

If you were homeless/transient as a teenager, or began living on your own without parental support/supervision at an unusually young age, what could you have learned back then that would have made your life better?

I've just begun volunteering at a local charity serving homeless youth. I'll mostly be tutoring (homework help, GED exam prep, etc.) but they would also like me to help teach their weekly "life skills" classes for the teens in their "independent living" transitional housing program.

There is no set curriculum for the life skills classes. Topics can range from things like basic cooking skills to how to establish a credit history to how to change a tire to surviving high school bullying. Or, even just telling one's own life stories as either a good example or cautionary tale (most of my life history falls into the latter category, LOL).

Personally, I moved out at 16 and had several teenage friends who were homeless, so I'm not completely clueless, but I was never homeless myself. So, I'm worried that my class privilege might make me oblivious to certain topics or priorities.

What topics or specific advice do you think would be most relevant and interesting to these teens? I don't want to be the boring "grown-up" who blathers on about shit they don't care about -- I want the classes I teach to actually be useful, not just something they endure.

posted by Jacqueline to Education (31 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Based on my experiences as a 16 year old living away from home (for school, not because I was a runaway, but still) - how checking accounts work. Debit cards. Overdraft fees and all the tricksy ways banks have of taking your money. Or, for that matter, why, despite all this, it's better to make use of legit financial services than places like payday loan sharks. Why it's good to have a checking account rather than just leaving wads of cash stashed all over the place.

How to fill out a job application.

How to access social services that may be available. How to fill out a FAFSA. How to figure out whether you have to do a tax return or not.
posted by Sara C. at 9:45 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Get their business all up in the community college system, live off the loans FAFSA allows, do the college, get into a state college...and begin adult life from there on out.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:19 PM on November 18, 2010

basic cheap cooking. things that you can pour out of three cans and make meals for days for under $5. chili is a good one, so is pasta and red sauce.

the staffing agencies for telemarketer style jobs will take anyone that breaths and puts on a fresh set of clothes. maybe do a couple days of "this is a $10 business casual outfit from goodwill" - call this number, answer all the questions with some variation of "i like people and talking to them" and pull down 7-9 bucks an hour. it's slightly more stable than fast food work and can get them in the door in some front line tech support work. not all menial jobs are created equal.

related to work: if you only ever have to depend on yourself to get there, you're the one totally responsible and in control of getting to work. it's easy to backslide if you depend on other people who are also just making it.

related to that - and one maybe hard to teach or articulate - that once you get a place, don't lose all your progress trying to help someone else. i was out on my own early and had 11ish people living in 1100sq feet and i was the only one working/paying the bills. i got myself into bad situations over the next few years trying to rectify things that had gone wrong there.
posted by nadawi at 11:49 PM on November 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

How to appreciate and take advantage of any free library services available.
posted by telstar at 12:31 AM on November 19, 2010

I was 16 when I moved into the dorms.

I needed to know about getting in to work/class on time, returning phone calls, showing up to stuff every time you're expected, how to act around people whose help you could use, how awful credit card debt can become, what to do when you don't have enough to eat, how to quit a job, where to buy work clothes, how to introduce yourself to strangers, the absolute necessity of basic integrity in academic and professional settings, how to tell if you need a doctor/therapist/lawyer and where to get quarters for the laundry machines if the change machine is busted.

Also, I have friends who could have used a talking to about the lottery and why it's for suckers.
posted by SMPA at 12:39 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

how to…
register to vote
write a check
throw a punch
handle arrest
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:18 AM on November 19, 2010

How to access social services / be persistent in dealing with bureaucracy. Also, it would have been great to realize that I could have lived pretty well if I had just gone to college so I'd also say How to Apply to College and How to Access Financial Aid.

Another thing is comparative shopping or why you should buy X at a grocery or discount store rather than a convenience store. Thrift store shopping. Freecycle. The basic how to live on the cheap instructions.

Most of all, I wish I had been taught How To Say No.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 1:45 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I left home at 16. Some of these things I already knew, some I wish I'd known.

- how to change a lightbulb, wire a lampholder, re-wire a plug (less valuable now everything has a moulded plug but still useful to know)

- when doing laundry, DO wash dark and light things separately

- don't let anyone into your home or your head if your gut is telling you not to

- have both a digital alarm-clock and an old-fashioned windey-up one

- open a savings account and pay 10% of your take-home into it

- pay your rent first. A friend will always make you a sandwich but might find it tougher to give you a bed for the night.

- always use birth control

- and, yeah, as PorcineWithMe said, learn to say no. People-pleasing damn near killed me.
posted by essexjan at 2:57 AM on November 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

I have not lived at home since I was 13.

Self-esteem building is very important, as the lack thereof leads to the self-sacrificing people pleasing others have mentioned. We are constantly bombarded with images of families that pull together in crisis, the unshakeable nature of a mother's love, and the loyalty of friends. Understanding that you have a place in the world, and that you aren't worthless just because you've been rejected by the people who are supposed to love you no matter what is key.
posted by No1UKnow at 3:50 AM on November 19, 2010 [9 favorites]

I'd say that a big part of learning to say no is learning to say, "can I think about that and get back to you later?" This way you can actually....think about the offer or request.

Learning the chain of command in a given situation/institution. When to go above someone's head, and when to stick with your original point of contact. Just learning that I could go over a teacher's head and pay a visit to the Dean (or whoever) totally blows my mind, still.

Definitely checking accounts and debt. Public transportation and the cheapness thereof when tickets are bought in bulk. If you're only buying a daily pass, it's expensive.

Working nicely with people you don't necessarily like, but knowing to get out before there is real trouble with them. And more importantly, not liking someone is different from not trusting them. Do not work with people you don't trust unless you truly have no choice. What I mean is, if you suspect someone is ripping you off, don't let them keep doing it. If someone has an annoying voice or some personality clash, have a bit of compassion and plug through.
posted by bilabial at 3:59 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

A lesson I saw a co-worker teach homeless teens: how to look busy. The assignment was to appear to be cleaning up the shelter for the next half hour. If anybody actually cleaned, okay, but you had to at least look like you were cleaning. Carry this thing over there, carry it back. Ask questions. Dust one shelf slowly. Etc.

Looking busy is sometimes as productive as being busy. Looking busy can preserve your job, and some jobs will have times when there is no work to do. You can trick yourself into enjoying work (ha, I'm just pretending to clean while I actually clean). The bad attitude of pretending to work is less hazardous than the bad attitude of visibly loafing. Many lessons worth knowing. No need to go on and on about prudent use of this skill, because pretending to work gets as boring as actually working (surprise bonus lesson - might as well just work).
posted by eccnineten at 4:04 AM on November 19, 2010 [10 favorites]

I wish I had taken better care of my relationships. A good support network is the best insulation against all problems personal and practical, but I took a lot of help I received for granted, being very wrapped up in my own problems. Like any teen, but. That sort of navel-gazing self-involvement is a good thing to jettison in those circumstances.
posted by kmennie at 4:20 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

- how to do laundry when you can't afford regular detergent (soap nuts, or Marseille soap — you scrape off some thin shavings and use them, then vinegar as softener, it also freshens up and only takes a tablespoon or two for a medium-sized load).

- how to clean house with super-cheap stuff (old towels/cotton t-shirts, vinegar and Marseille-type soap again, whatever basic soap is cheapest in your area - tends to differ by location).

- as others have said, how to balance a checkbook.

- related, how to draw up a reliable budget! at a minimum, recurrent expenses you know must be covered, as well as prioritization of them (housing first, electricity and water second, food third, for instance — as someone said above, it's easier to ask around for food than for housing).

- how to mend clothes. hand sewing is cheap, easy, the supplies take very little room, and it can save your dignity on those days when you get a hole/a hem falls apart and you can't afford a replacement, and everything else is dirty or it's the only pair of pants/only coat/whatever that you have.

- how to use public transportation, if applicable (includes how to read maps, as well as how to budget! you can save serious money if you know your travel habits and compare different ticket/card options).

- in any case, how to read a map/orient yourself. You don't need a compass, you can use the sun for rough orientation (bonus: learn how to estimate time of day depending on its position and the season). I've never been lost in my life thanks to that — I memorize the rough lines of a city in my head, position myself with regards to the sun and take into account the time of day. Then, even if I find myself on a street I'm not meant to be on, well — "quick look at the sun, time of day means north is that-a-way, which means the Main Street X is in that direction, so if I head that way I'll reach it eventually." Been to Helsinki, Stockholm, Beijing, Paris, Milan, Firenze, Venice, Los Angeles, Vancouver — it always works, so long as you put that rough map of the city and directions in your head first thing.

- how to buy a car, in teams of two (meant to reproduce what a couple would do, but it's also great for learning teamwork). We had this at our high school and even though I've never bought a car in my life, it really helped me get an idea of what it is to talk things out with a friend/partner, prioritize, budget, negotiate with dealers and with banks — it covers loads of important life skills that you can also apply to housing, for instance.

- how to shop for food. My paternal grandmother was a supermarket cashier for much of her life (she became manager eventually, in the 1950s! so proud of my grandma!!), and she taught me everything I know about shopping: where they tend to put cheap stuff (top and bottom shelves), almost never to buy what's in front (take from the back, stores often try to get rid of stuff that doesn't sell or that's nearing expiration by putting it in front), how to read ingredients, how to read prices (divide by weight, though that's done automatically nowadays, it's still a good skill to have), so on and so forth.

- and to reiterate what others have said, due to its importance, forming and cultivating integrity, mutual respect, and supportive relationships. My entire family, except for my paternal grandparents (who are both dead now), is, pardon my French, shit. (Feel free to read my comment history if you want more detail, but it's not fun.) However, integrity, and recognizing others' generosity and support, have replaced everything the inexistence of family support took away: word of someone's integrity goes around very fast. It's how I've gotten all my jobs, despite having no school or family connections (I live in a foreign country, to boot).
posted by fraula at 5:46 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Trust yourself. Don't second guess your insticts just because you are a kid. If something doesn't sound right or sounds too good to be true, it is.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:01 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and take care of your teeth, you're gonna need them and need them looking clean for the rest of your life.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:03 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I left home very young and lived on the streets. One of the things that saved me was that I had always been a reader, and I was privileged enough to know about libraries and bookstores- I confess, I shoplifted books back then. I've worked with both "delinquent" kids and young college students and very very few of them these days are readers. Turning young people on to the pleasures of reading may be the most important thing you can do for them. when I worked with kids who had substance abuse problems I told them that a good novel is the best drug there is, it takes you somewhere else, it gets you high, it gives you a vacation from your real life, it's free.
posted by mareli at 6:11 AM on November 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

I was never homeless and didn't leave home at an early age but I do teach a course called Career and Personal Planning to inner city kids in grade 10 (about 15yrs old.) The students tell me that the most useful things are:
-how to dress, behave, and talk at an interview.
-Budgeting (I give them fake jobs and make them calculate what their monthly income is and then when they thing they are done I surprise them with a whole bunch of unexpected expenses.)
-how to shake someone's hand
-what a healthy/unhealthy relationship looks like
-services in the community (teen walk in clinic at the hospital, the free passes at the community centre and gym for low income folks)
posted by sadtomato at 6:43 AM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

From more of a philosophy perspective (in this order):
1. If you can't find the door of opportunity, make one.
2. Opportunities to make one won't come to you, you need to go to them.
3. To make complex tasks like the above two possible, split them up into simple steps and be vigilant about tracking and accomplishing them.

When I was very young my dad wanted me to learn that last one so he'd give me a toothbrush to clean the kitchen floor, or tweezers, a brush, and a dustpan, to pick out the sand the snow plow deposited in our front yard. Insane stuff, but I'd get them done and learnt to do whatever I set my mind to, like escaping depression, poverty, and loneliness.

The big lessons from that? (1) Always stay grounded, but don't be afraid to dream, and (2) don't push away the people who love you and may not know how bad things were for you, even if they were close to you.

Oh, and in any organization get to know the office admins, the librarian if there is one, and the cleaning staff. They pretty much keep the place running without management and know *everything*.

Last one's stupid but here goes nothing: Girls made me a drastically better man and were surprisingly undisturbed by my circumstances. I'm guessing that works for "significant others" in general.
posted by jwells at 7:16 AM on November 19, 2010

From what some of my students coming from that sort of situation have told me:

*Interview behavior AND CLOTHING. Let me put "and clothing" a million times. Not just WHAT to wear but how it ought to fit, what fabrics they ought to be wearing in which seasons, how to care for it, etc. I saw one girl in a lovely suit ... two sizes too small. She thought that's how it was supposed to fit.

*The kids who were successfully transitioning into full-time jobs (often through a vocational tech program) were DEEPLY fascinated by the basics of investing -- 401ks, mutual funds, why not to invest all your money in the company's own stock, etc. They also generally had no idea how the progressive tax system worked. I taught a business ethics class that all the kids in this particular vocational program had to take, but we always took a day out of it to cover "basics of retirement investing" and "how your taxes work." Most kids learn these things at home (even if it's covered in school, they're often too young to care at that point); the kids without parents available to teach these things struggled with them and appreciated the basic knowledge. The kids WITH parents often had parents with unstable, low-skill jobs who were unable to transmit this sort of knowledge because it wasn't knowledge they themselves had. We even talked about such basic things as, if you go to work for a big company, they will have someone whose JOB it is to explain your benefits to you; and that even as a lawyer, I'm not totally sure I understand my health insurance and I call the benefits department or the health insurer ALL THE TIME to make sure I'm clear, and that seeking help is NORMAL.

*Certain kinds of conflict resolution skills, particularly for the working world. For kids from troubled backgrounds, the best defense is sometimes a good offense, showing anger quickly and strongly to try to prevent escalation. That doesn't work so well in a middle-class work environment, but the "correct" methods still have to be learned, they're not innate.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:32 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

That getting away from the abuse wasn't enough.
That you can't fill a bucket with a hole in it.
That I deserved love.
posted by foobario at 7:33 AM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

I was not homeless as a teen, but I got married at 16 and spent the rest of my teens and early twenties living in various degrees of poverty. What I wish I knew then:

A credit card does not equal "free money." That $500 credit limit looks like a fortune when you haven't had two nickels to rub together in awhile, and you have this big idea how you'll only spend a little bit and the $10 a month payment will be no sweat, but there is ALWAYS some emergency that makes you spend it up to the limit and you will wind up struggling with that payment for years.

Payday loans will fuck you up financially for a good long time.

Having a baby young and before you are financially stable will make it a zillion times harder to ever improve your situation. It makes it harder & more expensive to work, to go to school, to have friends and a social life, even limits your ability to live on the edge if you need to. (Few people will be willing to host a friend and her baby for a week of couch sleeping, for example.)

If you are ever in a situation where you can afford to take one college class per semester, don't pass it up because "it'll take ten years to get my degree." Your ten-years-older self will thank you.

Learn some basic office skills, even if you are absolutely sure you don't want an office career. You can almost always find work through a temp service if you have some basic skills and look presentable. Many temp services offer training in their office to improve your computer skills if you are signed up with them, take advantage of those. Temporary jobs often turn into full-time jobs, and even if you don't want to work in an office for life it's a lot easier going to school part-time for something you do like when you can support yourself at an 8 to 5 job with insurance that pays a few dollars more per hour than McDonalds.

(Disclaimer: I'm not sure how good the prospects for temp work are in this economy but I've been able to stay afloat during previous economic bad spells by temping.)
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:38 AM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Teach them how to build and maintain good credit.

Mine is destroyed from being young, foolish, not knowing any better and having no one showing me how to do it. I wasn't an idiot, I knew paying my bills was bad, but I didn't know just what kind of effect simply paying a bill late might have on my credit score.
posted by sunshinesky at 7:44 AM on November 19, 2010

Oh sorry, I missed that this was already a part of the programme. Anyway, I can't stress how important it is anyway.
posted by sunshinesky at 7:45 AM on November 19, 2010

Stuff that would have helped me as a 17 year old girl living on my own:

-Where to go for cheap/free medical care
-Sex and personal health education. As a teen, I would have vehemently denied it and claimed I knew everything, but I had no idea how ovulation cycles worked or how to keep myself from constantly having a urinary tract infection.
-How to use my instincts and common sense to keep out of sketchy situations where I was at risk of being exploited or victimized. ie. Don't go by yourself to parties and get really drunk. Don't let strangers in your apartment. Don't go to the laundromat by yourself at 11pm at night.
-How to apply to college and do the financial aid stuff. Why it's a dumb idea to take the maximum student loan money offered and spend it on shoes and beer. How it can be cheaper to take some of the pre-requisite university classes at a community college and transfer them over.
-How to manage bills and debt. Credit card interest rates. What happens when you don't pay your credit card bill or when you write a bad check.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:47 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I moved out at 16 for school, but was not legally emancipated. I was also still eligible to take advantage of my parents medical benefits. Depending on where I lived, I discovered I still had a difficult time refilling my birth control prescriptions without my parents' physical presence/approval. (This was in the late 90s, if that matters.) My parents made sure I knew I could always go to Planned Parenthood as a backup resource, which made me feel a lot better and more in control.

Similarly, renewing my drivers' license and signing leases under age 18 always seemed to present problems for me. I also vaguely recall some issues with trying to open and close bank accounts, but the details are lost to me now.

I usually felt very frustrated and near tears during these scenarios because the systems weren't set up to accommodate my experience, and I felt like I was trying really hard to be an adult and make the right choices and take care of my life on my own, but I wasn't allowed to.

I think it's important for people under 18 to understand their rights and be willing to advocate for themselves, something I was honestly pretty scared to try doing. I also wish I'd taken advantage of the free legal resources in my state to help me understand what I could and could not do on my own. Basically, what everyone else said: I suggest arming them with information, resources, and as much confidence as you can.
posted by juliplease at 7:52 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've seen some of the comments above talk about identifying healthy/unhealthy relationships, and not being exploited or victimized. I read an article once that pointed out that this is especially true for young girls in the workplace for the first time. In trying to do everything the boss says and in trying to please everyone, they often don't know where "the lines" are when it's okay to tell someone and get help, especially in the aspect of sexual harassment.

You can give them some examples: It is not okay for a boss to touch you anywhere - arm, shoulder, back, butt, breast. It is not okay for him to say things that make you uncomfortable or to talk about parts of your body, especially in a sexual way. etc.

One other thing that I did in college: establish a single place for "important papers" - passport, birth certificate, loan documents, warranties for expensive stuff, scholarship paperwork, emancipation paperwork, anything related to legal or financial issues. It was never organized at all, but I knew if it was important, it would find it in that drawer when I needed it.
posted by CathyG at 8:25 AM on November 19, 2010

Know your legal rights. How to interact with police/other authorities and survive/not have bad things happen. How to have sex and use drugs safely.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:13 AM on November 19, 2010

I would really recommend basic workplace etiquette, especially answering the phone and learning how to speak to people, including angry or irritated customers. You could try to make it a game/role playing if that would help, but unfortunately I think that the way people speak on the phone and present themselves becomes a huge class marker and if they don't know how to answer the phone (and dial it! How to call extensions, dial nine for an outside line, that sort of thing) they will be hugely limited in terms of job prospects.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:27 AM on November 19, 2010

How to dress, behave, and talk like an adult (which is strongly tied to sadtomato's first suggestion, but extends a bit further)

Speaking from my experience, and that of a lot of my friends, the transition form adolescence to adulthood was hampered by the fact that we didn't know how to act the part. In some cases it was because we didn't have any family examples of what a high-functioning adult acted like, in some cases it was because we clung to our anti-authoritarian pose a bit too long and it stuck. In some cases it was both.
posted by lekvar at 1:02 PM on November 19, 2010

How to recognize a serial killer. I'm serious! Or at least how to recognize dangerous people. How to recognize a sociopath, narcissist, and how those two personalities interact in a serial killer. How do serial killers pick their victims? Where do serial killers find their victims? Watch a movie together and discuss if the characters had personality disorders. Some good movies:

"The Good Son" 1993. with Macaulay Culkin
"The Deliberate Stranger" 1986 with Mark Harmon or have them read the book by Ann Rule

I would say talk to them about how to use clues about someone based on how they treat animals, children, elderly. How to guess if someone has empathy or not.

Get a psychiatrist to come in and give a workshop if you can.

Information about personality disorders will also help them understand why they are not living with their parents (I'll bet there is a personality disorder involved).
posted by cda at 3:28 PM on November 19, 2010

I feel like a lot of the posters are assuming that all homeless kids are using drugs, making poor decisions, etc. and some of that may be right. But some kids leave home or get emancipated because parents die and no other family members are present, or the stepparent doesn't want you around after mom/dad goes to jail or leaves to do a contract job in another country, or you were being raised by grandparents who had a stroke/became dependent on a medical facility... there are lots of reasons to be on your own at 16/17. I was, and the things I dealt with were:

1. Getting on birth control at 16 through Planned Parenthood if you're female. It was basically free, I had a part-time job I could walk to from a friend's house or the apartment where I stayed (when my mom would let me, that is... I had to pay rent and avoid fighting with stepdad - enough said), and all I needed was an address and proof of either some income or no income to get it for, I think, $7/month for a pack of pills? Plus free condoms. You can't always choose whether you're going to have sex or not; you might get victimized. At least reduce the chances of it being more of a life-changing experience than it already will be, that was my line of reasoning.

2. How to fill out a resume/job application with no experience. Seriously, have kids practice doing this and let them fill it out themselves with no help. Then show them what they did wrong or how they could've made their negatives sound like positives. If they don't have an address or phone number, tell them to ask around until a friend or school teacher or someone they trust offers theirs to help this child get established. The school counselor or principal's office isn't the worst place to start, and most of them would never consider this.

3. How to use public library computers to send out resumes, apply for jobs and housing, set up appointments and reminders to make your own schedule - part of having a disciplined, adult life is building a daily schedule and sticking to it, which includes budgeting for things before and after school hours (this will help after graduation for those who can't get into college).

4. How to obtain their own personal records. Another poster upthread mentioned having one place to put important documents; they also need to know how to get a driver's license, copy of their birth certificate, SSN, etc. and so on and how much those things cost.

5. How to divide expenses and chores amongst household members when you live with roommate(s).

Finally, how to distinguish between situations where it is OK and beneficial to ask for and receive help vs. being perceived as a beggar/freeloader or that you are being set up to be victimized.

Situations where it's OK to ask for help: going to the student financial aid department at a local college when you're a high school senior and ask for financial hardship advice/loans/applications; asking a teacher to write you a letter of recommendation for housing, an internship, or act as a job reference; asking a friend's parent who is giving you a ride if you can mow their yard in exchange for a place to sleep for the weekend or food (most kids are too proud to do this and some end up shoplifting; asking for help and being refused just embarrasses you, jail sucks).

Situations where it's not OK to ask for help: panhandling, asking to borrow money you know you cannot pay back from friends, borrowing someone's car to sell, deliver or transport drugs or firearms, flirting with a teacher or authority figure in order to get favors of any kind or implying you will exchange sexual favors for money or a place to live, stealing food or other items from your job when you can just ask first (most kids don't realize that if they ask, say, a restaurant if they can take any food being thrown away to a homeless shelter or home with them because they don't have food to eat is probably OK).

If a kid has a skewed vision of right and wrong but is intelligent, the key is to make that kid us their brains productively and for personal gain within the limits of the law instead of finding devious ways to manipulate the system. Catching that early on is really important.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:45 PM on November 20, 2010

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