When you have been married for 46 years to someone who is a HUGE Bob Dylan fan, you can’t help but pick up a lyric or two. This happened to me the morning after I visited a homeless shelter. I slowly became aware of the nasal voice of Bob Dylan on the radio, his message resonating with the words of Tomika White Powell.
I met Tomika at a new shelter for older teens and young adults, started and funded by Pierce County/City of Tacoma. The homeless have many faces including teens and young adults. Tomika lived in her grandparents’ home where drug use was rampant, domestic violence happened often, and she experienced sexual abuse. She ran away and became homeless. Tomika was 11. She moved from friends to friends and would occasionally try to live back at her grandparents’ home hoping that maybe, just maybe, it would be better. It never was.
We know that teens look for acceptance, and Tomika was no different. When she was 14, she met a guy. He said that he was 17 – he was really 35. He took her in – she thought he would take care of her. He introduced her to meth and into gang activity. She stopped going home and stopped going to school. She had no one telling her that there were better options, that she had choices. For Tomika, whose background was drugs, violence and abuse, this was her norm. She got arrested and went to Remann Hall. She got out and went back to her grandparents’ home. It didn’t work. She left home again, and she met another guy. This one was 18. Life was not better with him. She got pregnant and kept the baby. Drugs were in and out of her life. She had another baby. The guy beat her and she ended up back at Grandma’s. It didn’t work. She started using again. She moved into a motel and worked in a strip club. Her boyfriend followed her, bringing other friends and drugs. She had another baby, and he became abusive again. She moved out and became clean.
She started seeing Jeremy Powell, a young man she had known for a long time, and tried to connect with people that would be good for her. But Grandma didn’t see that and called CPS. They took her children. She started using again. She tried suicide but survived. She left Jeremy. She prayed. She went to in-patient treatment, got back together with Jeremy, and got pregnant again. But she realized this time that this baby and her other children needed a better home and gave up her parental rights. Tomika teared up when talking about how hard it was to make this decision. Life continued with Jeremy and was more of the same, traveling to other cities, on and off drugs, living in violent communities, eventually splitting up.
No one knows what causes people to realize that change should happen. Maybe Tomika hit bottom, maybe she was tired of living on the streets, or maybe she missed Jeremy. Tomika turned to God and asked for help. She started reading the Bible – daily – for hours at a time. And she noticed little miracles were happening. She wasn’t alone walking with God. Jeremy saw Tomika and saw a different person in a different place in her life. A place he wanted. They committed to each other, her taking his name, and decided together that in order to move forward they would have to be drug free, in school, and working toward a job. They are both in programs that will get them there. Tomika wants to give back to girls like her. She will be able to see through their pain and struggle and help them discover the good in themselves. When I asked her what one thing she wanted to share she said, “Everyone has potential to blossom.” Tomika is now 23.
We live in “the land of opportunity,” in a country where if you work hard enough you can have it all, where all you have to do is pull yourself up by your bootstraps. I was talking to one of the workers at the shelter, River, about opportunities and how so many of our kids, like Tomika, don’t start life on an equal plane with others. She said,” You don’t have opportunity just because you are born.”
The Bob Dylan song that I heard that morning was “Like a Rolling Stone”. The lyrics “When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose - You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal” explained in a few words the life that Tomika has lived. She had nothing, not the care, the safety, nor the love of home and family. She became one of America’s throw away kids, invisible. She turned to drugs and homelessness. Why not, she had nothing to lose. I can’t help but wonder if things are better now than they were in 1965 when Bob Dylan asked in his song,
“How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?”