Introduction. The unterrible part of being a homeless teen

in #introduceyourself8 years ago (edited)

I've been struggling with how to introduce myself to such a dynamic community because I only have one chance at a first 'hello'. My name is Wendy McElroy and I've written/published many books, articles, dozens of documentaries, short stories... You name it and I've been writing it for decades. Being an author is all I've wanted to do since I was five years old, and I'm hoping to bring to this forum my passion for discussing everything about the profession -- from marketing to dealing with editors, from idea concepts to final polishing.

But how does the preceding tell you who I am as a human being? That question was the stumbling block. Finally, I realized my latest article in a publication entitled "Smart Set" offers a good window into who I am. I don't yet know if Steemit permits URLs so I am reprinting it in full below.

Try a Little Tenderness. The unterrible part of being a homeless teen
By Wendy McElroy

I was 16 years old when I ran away from home on a December night in Ottawa, Canada where the typical monthly temperatures range from ten to 21 degrees Fahrenheit at night. I had no choice. My mother was an alcoholic and I was the only family member left on whom she could vent an increasingly dangerous rage.

I kept from freezing to death by sleeping on a pew in an unlocked church I’d attended as a child. Then, the next day, I broke into my former home and “stole” some of my clothing, a small stash of savings from babysitting, ID, photographs, and a few other useful items. I never returned. I never saw my mother again. I abandoned my plan for university and replaced it with the dream of a minimum-wage job in a warm, safe McDonald’s. Meanwhile, I spent as much daylight as possible in obscure corners of a huge public library, using the public washroom to clean up.

My interval on the street can be measured in weeks because of a strong drive to get back into society fast, even at the lowest rung. The longer I was homeless, I thought, the more likely it was I would remain so. I remember always being cold, being afraid, and never meeting people’s eyes because I wanted to be invisible. I wouldn’t repeat the experience nor wish it upon anyone.

For decades, I’ve sorted through memories and emotions from my time as a homeless teen. As odd as it sounds, some of the fall-out from homelessness has been positive in the long-run. For example, it was amazing how much I missed the simple things that I’d taken for granted like soap, a glass of water whenever I wanted it, toothpaste, light switches, Kleenex, clean socks, a plate . . . I suddenly understood the value of small things in creating the base of a “normal” life; it is a realization I’ve never lost.

Another realization: I was lucky. For one thing, I had turned 16 years old several weeks before running away. The difference? If I had been 15 years old, it would have been illegal for an employer to hire me because of child labor laws. Good-hearted people with humanitarian intentions had voted for and passed legislation that meant a 15-year-old me could have supported herself only through begging or illegal means such as sex work, theft, or drug dealing.

People will reflexively say, “you could have gone to a government agency for help.” No, I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – for several reasons. It is far from easy to qualify for quick government assistance; many social workers would have fixated on returning me “home” to the wretched situation from which I’d fled. Even if a social worker had wanted to help me become independent, the process of getting government assistance is a long, humiliating one with no guarantee of success. Even the best agencies tend to process people like meat. My overriding reason for avoiding “the system”, however, is one I’ve heard from others who were homeless teens. A child who ends up alone on the street has been betrayed by every authority figure she knows. Asking her to trust authority one more time is going to persuade her to walk in the other direction.

I was lucky because I was 16, and I had the chance to support myself. After about a week, I found an ad for clerical help in the paper. The owner of a modest appliance store needed someone to organize years and years’ worth of paperwork that he’d stacked in boxes. It was tedious and underpaid work but, after a few days, he let me spend nights in the store’s basement where there was a sofa and the extreme luxury of a bathroom. I was safe and clean, and he had a clerk who worked almost around the clock. I didn’t feel exploited; I felt fortunate — almost rescued. Hiring me and making the basement available was a quiet act of decency on the owner’s part but he would not have risked it if I had been 15 and doing so had been illegal.

One night, as I lay on the couch listening to unfamiliar noises in the store, I realized how lucky I was in another way. I was white, healthy, and born in North America. None of these circumstances were to my credit because none of them resulted from my efforts. Nevertheless, I slept in churches and spent days in a library because I lived in a prosperous, low-crime society that protected children more often than not. If I had been a homeless teenaged girl in a developing country, I don’t know if I would have survived or been able to pull myself off the street. The insight gave me a perspective many people lack; namely, I should always weigh any complaints about life against the extreme advantages life had handed me at no charge.

I felt grateful to the store owner but I never felt indebted to him. Perhaps I should have; he provided a phone number at which I could be contacted and, so, I applied for other minimum wage jobs to fill the gap when the filing was done.

To some people, the line between gratitude and indebtedness may seem blurry but, to me, it is sharp. Gratitude means you say “thank you” but indebtedness means you pay something back. I’d felt the latter emotion about a week before going to work as a file clerk when I was still sleeping in a church at night.

I would stand across the street and watch the large wooden doors until no one had gone in or out for 20 minutes or so before I chanced entering myself. After sneaking inside the church, I stretched out on a pew that was farthest from the door and from the altar because people might be in back rooms that were behind or to the side of it. I was terrified that someone would find me and I would lose the only place I was safe, where I did not freeze to death. Every night I fell asleep in a cramped, curled ball, fully clothed but shivering. Every morning I left before anyone could find me. At least, that’s what I thought.

One morning I woke up and I wasn’t cold. During the night, someone had put a blanket over me. I would have been overwhelmingly grateful if the person had simply ignored me so that I could continue to sleep in the church. As it was, the person chose to make me warm without demanding I explain my presence, without being sanctimonious or asking for anything in return. I’d stopped expecting kindness from people who were supposed to love me; I knew they would be cruel instead. Now I received anonymous compassion from a stranger I had never met and whom I never did. I have thought about the blanket for decades.

When it happened, one of my reactions was confusion. Gratuitous kindness was not a gesture I knew how to process emotionally. Today, I understand why someone who could harm a stranger would choose to help instead . . . even if it meant breaking the rules. The natural empathy that connects one human being to another makes it hurt inside to watch another person suffer, especially an innocent and vulnerable person. I also understand what it means to be on the receiving end of the gesture. The memory can still bring me to tears.

And, so, I am grateful to the store owner for taking a chance which allowed me to regain a glimmer of self-respect. I started to believe I could physically survive on my own. But, ultimately, the store arrangement was a fair trade that benefited both of us and I felt no lingering connection to the episode.

I am indebted to the stranger because the blanket was an act of pure goodness from which I experienced an immense one-sided benefit. The stranger helped me to believe in other people again. I can never pay him or her back but I can pay the kindness forward. Since that night, I’ve walked past people asking for spare change many times; I have a highly-developed sense of when a person is scamming or on drugs. But I don’t walk past anyone whose voice rings true. I know how powerful a small act of kindness can be, and I am still in someone’s debt.

I remember a night when I was not cold because people are compassionate. I know how lucky I was to be homeless in North America and to find an employer who’d gamble on me. I do not take the small niceties of life for granted. These are the lessons I select from my time on the street.



I verify that this is Wendy McElroy, the well-known individualist anarchist and individualist feminist, author and columnist. She confirmed to me via email that it's really her.

Here's her website ( and her most recent book is Rape Culture Hysteria: Fixing the Damage Done to Men and Women

Welcome Wendy! Wow, I had no idea. Your story really touched me...

I left home when I was 17, had to sneak out in the middle of the night and wasn't permitted to take along hardly any of my possessions. I was lucky tho. I had a good friend who rented me a room, a Grandpa who sent me a couple hundred bucks a month and a job selling electronics on commission.

How awesome that you're here! I've followed you. :)

You are pretty awesome yourself, George. One of the hardest working SF writers I know. And tolerant. Sometimes that's necessary when working with me. Thanks for all your help in getting established on Steemit.

It's a pleasure, and you're too kind.

Wait 'til we work together again to call me kind, George, because I remember irritating you deeply at one point. :-) BTW, I'm largely doing my own marketing on "Rape Culture Hysteria" and I'm learning a boatload of techniques; it is going decently. Of course, I don't have anything like the mass of marketing info you offer at the Libertarian Science Fiction Association -- which I highly recommend to non-libertarian writers as well. It is the friendliest, most helpful group of writers I've ever encountered. I am trying to transition from non-fiction to novels and members like George have displayed nothing but encouragement.

Haha, naw.

Do you have a mailing list? That's a good basic step. Let me know if you need any help with it.

Welcome to the madness, Wendy! Great to have you on board :)
-Gabriel Scheare

Thanks, Gabriel. Fortunately I feel quite at home in the midst of anarchy. Now to figure out how to post an image!

haha yeah, it's weird at first. I can give you a hand if you like. Just email me at
[email protected]

This is an astonishingly touching piece of writing. I admire your attitude. I wish you nothing but positive experiences from here on. I have a 17 year old daughter and your story moves me to tears.

Thank you as well, onetree. You should know that I have an extremely happy life, writing every day on a 40-acre farm with my husband of almost 30 years; this is why I may sound so calm about being on the street. It was long ago and it cannot/does not harm me now. Life is good.

I am happy about that, and will enjoy following your writing. All the best. :-)

Please post a verification, perhaps a picture with your steemit username and the word steemit written on a piece of paper?

this always helps.

This is a bit surprising. I have never been asked to verify myself before but anyone can write to me at wendyATwendymcelroyDOTcom and I will be pleased to respond with a "yes, I just joined Steem." Hmm...I think I'll go to my blog tonight or tomorrow and post that I've joined; my blog has been actively mine and me for over ten years so it is difficult to fake. I prefer this method of verification to the photo posting because I like to keep facial images to a minimum on the internet.

BTW, the reason George Donnelly 'vouched' for me was because I've had the pleasure of working with him on a writing project and I came to Steem at his suggestion. I'm not taking the slightest offense here...but I've not encountered this situation before.

As a friend of George and longtime acquaintance of Wendy's, I'll vouch for her too.

Hello Wendy - you could also just repost this or something indicating that this is you on your account ;-)

That's probably the easiest way to verify myself -- short of what I did this morning, which was to look in mirror and say "yes, that's me." I posted a tweet about joining about two minutes ago.

Also - here is a great guide to get into the swing of things from some of the early Steemians:

The reason why steemians would like to see some verification is that we have seen many fake accounts here. Impostors are trying to make money by claiming that they are some public figure and copying their texts.

No need to take any pictures, that's only one way of verification (and not even very good because images can be photoshopped). At least one person on the comments has emailed and verified you so that's enough for me (if somebody is still suspicious, they can email you too).

Understood, and the explanation makes sense. I just used my twitter account to announce that I'd joined Steem so there's extra verification.

This is amazing quality work! Please consider adding the writing or story tags to your post.

Thanks so much, Josh. This is my first day on Steemit and I am a bit lost. Give me a week and I'll be arrogant about navigating about. But, right now, any guidance is a godsend.

Yes, Steemit is really confusing. They only a few days ago added the follow system, so, as Steemit says, it is still very much in beta. Here is a great guide, which should be the faq (not written by me)

Wow, what a story! Looking forward to your wisdom about the writting industry.

I'm not sure how much wisdom I have, mscleverclocks, but I have managed to feed myself for quite a while through words. Like I recently told an editor, we both make our living off air. I thank you for the welcome.

Wow absolutely honoring to hear your story, thank you for sharing that. I could never think of such an accurate and in depth way to introduce myself or my life.

What an incredibly touching story. The part about the stranger at the church who put a blanket over you while you were sleeping in order to keep you warm... that one really brought me to tears. It reminded me of extraordinary acts of kindness that I received from strangers when I was going through tough times. It's moments like those that stay with you forever (like you said) and keep my hope for humanity alive.

Coin Marketplace

STEEM 0.24
TRX 0.11
JST 0.032
BTC 61482.47
ETH 2990.09
USDT 1.00
SBD 3.67