Writing with Street Youth in Crisis: The Challenges of Writing with Young People in Deep Distress, Including Severe, Untreated Mental Illness 

by Shaun McMichael, former Pongo mentor and current head of "The Zine Project" for street youth, through Catholic Community Services in Seattle

[The names, genders and physical descriptions of each individual have been changed for reasons of strict confidentiality.]

In this article I’d like to present the challenges and lessons learned in using creative writing to help street youth, many of whom are in deep emotional distress. The challenges and the lessons are represented here through three fictional youth –  personalities that I hope will capture the essences of the difficulty at hand. And of course, the gritty, hard-earned joy.

Seattle streets are home to many youth whose difficulties outnumber their years . Fifteen-year-olds pitching tents under bridges, in parks, or downtown. Eighteen-year-olds prostrate on the gym floors of churches, in the handful of shelters. Others still, of all ages, using their bodies in exchange for a place to stay for the night, along with other underworld sundries. The majority have experienced some form of trauma at home or in foster care, and are experiencing the onset of mental illness. In order to cope,  many use drugs. And being troubled, impulsive, and desperate, they get as soaked with criminal charges as they do with rain.

Despite everything, these teenagers walk miles every day. They navigate systems. They want things. Their eyes glimmer in the flickering moments when someone takes the time to understand them.

Creative writing is a tool that can facilitate self-understanding. A space in which a youth, no matter how troubled, can reflect rather than react. Writing is a way homeless youth can  function better,  identify their aspirations, and build relationships.

I learned the power of writing first in my own life, later from my work with the Pongo Teen Writing Project (with youth in foster care and in the state psychiatric hospital), and now from my job running The Zine Project—a paid, prevocational writing program for homeless youth (15-22). In the paragraphs that follow I present the challenges and the lessons learned at The Zine Project, after working with youth like Rickson, Alexandra, and Thomas.

Challenge 1: Getting youth interested in writing.
Lesson Learned: Use their interests as vehicles for truth.


I learned this lesson early on with Pongo, when one day I wrote with a fourteen year old obsessed with entertainment wrestling on TV. When we sat down to start writing, wrestling was all he wanted to talk about. We wrote a stanza about Stone Cold’s pile-driver. Another one about The Rock’s knock-out. Then how the youth wished he could have wrestled his abusive step-father away from his weak-willed mother. And how his inability to do that haunts him.

We got all of it down. To get to the neglect, I had to go through the World Wrestling Federation.

At Zine, I experienced this in a deeper way. At Zine, we write with youth for eight weeks. They can write about anything they want; but, of course, my goal is to get them to use writing to understand themselves, their emotions, and their narratives.

Rickson wasn’t having any of it. With his baby blue cap turned sideways and his afro, Rickson resembled Mos Def’s younger brother. He was a fun kid. Quoted movies. Showed up on time. But he shied away from writing about himself. He had serious doubt in a reader’s ability to understand him and refused all my attempts to get him to write about feelings or his narrative. Instead he wanted to write about raves.

Suffering from undiagnosed learning disabilities and having struggled in school, Rickson had no idea how to research or organize information. I knew this. And that I could help him organize his thoughts. But that it would take a lot of work. Work that I didn’t think would have the therapeutic payoff I always hope for.

I suggested ways Rickson could make it more personal: “Maybe you could write about memories you’ve had at raves. Or raves in the context of your life.”

He picked at his fro with a comb and looked at a poster on the wall. Later he asked me, nonchalantly, if there’d ever been someone who hadn’t fit in enough to keep writing for the full eight weeks.

This kid had been invested enough to come every day. But I was losing him. I needed to show him I was willing to help, even if it didn’t fit my ends. I kicked it in gear. Created outlines in the form of questions he could answer with a combination of his street smarts and quick skims through Wikipedia.  Rickson helped me come up with the questions. I remember the relief on his face after we came up with all of them—in a neatly ordered format; and the gusto that followed as he tackled each question.

He worked so hard, he filled up the outline in a week. He got bored. And asked me where else he could go. It was then I suggested we write about his rave experiences in poetic ways, using Pongo’s  Dictation Method.

With dictation, a poetry mentor types while the youth speaks and responds to a mentor’s improvisational prompts that lead them, hopefully, to discover their own meaningful images, metaphors, and feelings.

The effort of forming grammatical sentences, finding the right letters on the keyboard, and spelling were all mechanics that Rickson hadn’t mastered, and they were tripping him up. With me at the keys, asking evocative questions, Rickson was able to play with language at a level of depth he was comfortable with:

Raves 

The people—
they’re all colorful. Their clothes
Are a bunch of bright, radiant colors.
They’re getting all ready to go inside,
Getting pumped up. 

You get searched by the dumb security
Guards that have no respect for you
But you just let it slide
Because when you get inside, you forget
About everything. 

The energy levels—
they bring up your mood
to where you forget about life.
The music massages your body—your heart.
The bass frequencies tickle your brain cells.
The d.j.’s are just the puppeteers to all of us
Puppets on the dance floor.
It’s exhilarating.
You come back to the boring life
You started off with.
But I always hear beats until I fall asleep
Where the beats come alive again.

The poem says some things about Rickson. For him, raves aren’t places to go and do drugs. They’re places to enjoy music, belong, and learn to deal with life. In the poem, Rickson submits to the music like a willing “puppet” on the dance floor—a disposition of acceptance Rickson adopts in his daily life. The poem also shows the author’s way of dealing with disappointment and a movement from the external to the internal. Though the show’s over at the end, he hears the beat in his own heart and looks to his dreams for continued inspiration.

While yielding some imagery and great phrasings (“the music massages your body—your heart”, etc.), it should be noted that this was as deep as I ever got with Rickson.

Challenge 2: Youth refusing to go deeper than their superficial interests.
Lesson Learned: Accept their threshold for emotionally difficult topics.

Rickson had a low threshold. There was plenty of difficulty in his story. But he wasn’t willing to go there in his writing. Yet.

He had been willing to write and had a positive experience doing so with a mentor who respected his boundaries and took interest in who he was. A very different experience than he had in public school English class.

Challenge 3: Using external rewards when youth lack intrinsic interest in writing.
Lesson Learned: Some youth will take advantage and, at the end of the day, still not be interested in writing.


“Hey, I’m Random White Guy. Want to write some poetry with me?”

Though, there are the exceptions, it’s a hard sell for me with most young people. Let alone those alienated from reading and writing because of undiagnosed learning disabilities or bad experiences in school.

I’ve seen all kinds of “carrots” used as motivators to get kids in the door. A forty-five minute break from class. Pizza. Even pay, in my program’s case.

We pay $9.04 an hour for youth to write! 

For the most part, these external rewards do wonders at stirring up interest in all kinds of young people. They might come in the first time for the wrong reasons; but if you can hook them with sincerity, they’ll come in the second time because they flat out want to write with you.

But every once in a while, a youth will come along more interested in the reward than the work.

Alexandra was a bruiser— hair always in a tight pony, and jaw usually clenched. She worked hard as a gardener at the community center where Zine takes place. And so, because she was homeless and had little job experience, we decided to hire her for Zine. She expressed little interest in writing—but then again, that’s kind of who we’re looking for. 

On the day of our first writing session, Alexandra  sat down in a circle with me and five youth writers. She kept her eyes closed and was breathing long, slow breaths. Like she was receiving a painful shot and trying to keep her cool.

Because poetry is a fundamentally oral form of expression, I have people read out loud. A stanza apiece. It creates a group cohesion, too. Allowing youth to encourage and take risks with each other.  When it came time for Alexandra to read, she read in a quiet, deadpan voice. This is not uncommon.

During discussion, she didn’t speak, other than saying, abruptly, “It was good. I liked it.” Again, quite common. But her clenched posture curdled the room with an unsettling feeling of her latent rage.

Not a great addition to a creative environment. One filled with young people with pasts rife with domestic violence, who are already a bit wary of poetry and new people.

She put me on edge, too.

But we took a gamble and hoped for the best. Maybe Alexandra just had a hard time meeting new people. We’ve had a lot of people warm slowly and flourish with time.

Alexandra did not. Alexandra continued refusing to share and even started becoming hostile. One day, about two weeks in, after the rest of the group had left, Alexandra volunteered that she wasn’t fitting in. As a service provider, prepared to empathize, I drew nearer to her and asked her why that was.

“People in here. They’re looking at me weird.”

“What people?” I asked.

“You. Right now. And getting all up in my face doesn’t help. I HATE THAT SHIT.”

She stormed out, and my pulse eased back into a more reasonable rhythm.

We didn’t hear anything from her for three days.

Part of me was relieved, thinking that maybe she was excusing herself from the program. I was starting to believe this was the best outcome. If she did come back, I had my doubts about moving forward. Every question I asked of Alexandra might result in an earful. It would be hard to do creative work under the constant threat of pushback.

The other part of me felt for her. Alexandra was showing all the signs of someone with an attachment disorder. Drawing away the instant she revealed something vulnerable. I knew this drawing away was in part a result of trauma. And I wanted to help.

When she came back, I offered her the old job back as a gardener. She said she wanted to keep writing with me. When I asked her why, she said it was because she could make more money.

I winced.

That carrot, that external, was too big to ignore and her adolescent mind wasn’t able to parse out the fact that the money wasn’t worth it to continue in something that she did not want to do.

I didn’t know how to communicate this to her. I was too afraid to, I guess. Too afraid to risk one more bad interaction.

So I offered her another carrot. Make up hours for writing done in her free time—a concession I often use to account for the barriers that keep homeless youth from working. I typed her out some prompts and sent her home with them. If I could just get her to enjoy the work, then maybe we could have a start. Plus, I wondered if the group element of our writing program was hard for a person like Alexandra.

The next day, she came in with several poems and shared them with me. There was a glimmer of light. One poem had a few similes. Even some internal rhyming. All concepts I had talked about while I imagined Alexandra was holding herself back from punching me. I was getting through!

I complimented her and gave her an hour of pay for her writings. She thanked me and said, “What a great program.” She said she looked forward to more make-up hours.

Great, right?

Wrong. Her participation in the writing sessions plummeted. She’d excuse herself to make a long phone call, come back, and in response to my query, tell me I needed to “mind my business.” In the same breath, she’d ask for more make up hours. She started even refusing to read with the group. I pressed her on this and she said, “I’m sick.” As her supervisor, I could have ordered her to read:“Read this stanza of poetry or you’re done for the day!” But I hated the way it sounded in my head. So I backed down. With a red face and trembling hands, I walked out of the room. I washed off my face in the bathroom. Cleaned the coffee maker down stairs. And breathed in the smell of the used coffee sludge mulching in the filter. The smell of defeat.

And Alexandra wasn’t the only witness to my defeat. The others in the group had seen it, too.

The sad thing (the happy thing, too) was that the others didn’t want me to lose. At that point, they were healthily hooked on poetry and expressing themselves. Plus, they were equally, if not more, scared by Alexandra and distracted by her and frustrated at why she was refusing to join them in what they were there to do.

I brewed a new pot. Smelling the steam and the fresh beans opening, I broke things down in my head. I was being manipulated. My genuine desire to do everything in my power to help was being used against me. My group was suffering. And, perhaps most importantly, Alexandra wasn’t having a therapeutic experience writing. By offering her these enormous carrots, I was simply teaching her that she didn’t have to work through her issues; she could just bully her way through life and be rewarded for it.

So, I asked Alexandra not to come back to the group. I fired her, essentially.

Challenge 4: Not all youth are ready to benefit from writing as a coping skill.
Lesson Learned: Another kind of therapy may be needed first.


Some youth don’t have the willingness it takes. Others are too emotionally fragile, as Alexandra was, to start this kind of work yet.

It doesn’t do the youth any good for a writing mentor to ignore this. It will just perpetuate frustration for both people. Sometimes in Pongo, kids would come to write with us just to get pizza. Or just to skip class. And sometimes this misplaced motivation, would yield fruit. Occasionally, it backfired and we’d get  a recalcitrant kid we’d have to excuse from  group. Or else lose the group.

Doing this is hard. It’s probably the hardest thing.

It’s hard on the mentor.

It’s hard on the youth.

You worry the youth will never write again. Or that the expiation in the form of rejection from the group will trigger painful emotions in the youth. Which it will. But…

Challenge 5: Recognizing the resilience of youth
Lesson Learned: You can’t teach it or take it away. But you can nurture and respect it.


With Alexandra, I mourned that my program had the opposite effect from its intention—to get kids writing. My program got her writing; but the hurtful experience of being fired by my program probably stopped her from writing more.

But this is part of the territory of trying to help people with any therapeutic tool. We have to be okay with the fact that many won’t receive the tools we have for them -- that they may revert to older, less helpful problem- solving strategies.

And we have to remember, that even in spite of this, there’s  vitality.

A final line in one of Alexandra’s poems was, “I only head out on my way.”A stoic statement, not without resiliency and strength. Virtues that exist innately in youth.

A few days later—days I filled with replaying the scenes, arguing with myself and re-examining my motives (had I just been lazy?)— Alexandra came by to pick up her last paycheck. She looked healthy and was doing well. What was more, she said it was good to see me. Surely a formality. But nonetheless, admirable and normative—the skill of being courteous to people you don’t like.

Alexandra has a long road. She has an illness. The people that help her soon become enemies as a result of her thinking. The ways she tries to deal with problems will not always work. But she has strength. She proved to us that she can regulate the violence inside and not lash out. That she can overcome a negative experience. All these strengths exist in her, separate from my input or influence. This is an encouragement for the provider who makes mistakes.

Challenge 6: When a youth’s thinking is unorganized and/or tangential, they cannot produce a clear thought, let alone a clear sentence.
Lesson Learned: Mentors can challenge unorganized and/or maladaptive thinking displayed by writers with illness.


When Thomas entered my program he was in the throes of schizophrenia—an illness that was quite new and disturbing to him. He was slightly built, with olive skin, dark hair, and brown eyes. Thomas would arrive to work most days an hour late, burst through the door in a scramble, demanding to know if he smelled. And asking me to look out the window to make sure no one was following him.

By the time I convinced him he was safe, he would express the following concerns: that somewhere in the world there was a famine, that his family was in danger, that he was in danger from his family, and that people were circulating indecent photos of him on the web.

He was alternately suspicious and infatuated with his peers, searching feverishly for commonality and even fabricating connections at times to cope with his loneliness.

Needless to say, Thomas missed a lot of work. He was hospitalized for several weeks during the project; but because of his intrinsic interest in writing and his faithfulness communicating with me on the phone, I kept him in the program, telling him I could give him make-up hours for any writing or artwork he did in the hospital. 

The day he was discharged, he dropped off a stack of unorganized scribbles—all on varying sizes of papers (legal, letter, note-card, post-it, etc.), intermingled with doodles. I took on the Sisyphean task of reading the writings and discovered a terse litany characterized by accusation and confusion.

I talked with a mental health therapist at our center. She acknowledged that Thomas might like writing on his own in this way, but doubted that it was helpful for him. 

“He’ll just keep spiraling in his head like this,” she told me.

The next day when Thomas came in to see what I thought, he was nervous—smelling his nails and tearing at his frayed jeans. 

My program sets up the goal that each youth form a collection of work, a collection they’re proud of, but also one that can be shared—with friends, therapists, family, and the wider community. Thomas, I think, realized that the writing he produced on his own wouldn’t work for this medium. 

He expressed this to me, “I think my writing is too… personal.”

I agreed.

I then told Thomas that I had a trick up my sleeve that could help him.

This trick was Pongo’s Dictation Method. 

Thomas agreed to try. 

I sat down at the computer, Thomas sat next to me. I wanted to start with something light—something away from family issues, famines, and psych wards. 

I’d noticed that he often doodled canoes in the margins of his writings. Sensing potential for a symbol, I asked him what canoes meant to him.

“People might kill me if they knew,” he said.

“Thomas, that sounds like a paranoid thought to me,” I replied, frankly.

“It’s not. People might kill me.”

“They’re not going to kill you, Thomas. That’s not true,” I said. It felt good telling him that. By doing so I wasn’t lording some universal truth over him. I was assuring him, inviting him, and freeing him. At least for a moment.

“OK.”

“What do canoes make you think of?”

They make me think of a nursery rhyme. You know, like life is but a dream,” he replied.

I started typing. “What else do you think of?”

“It makes me think of teamwork. I’m not necessarily going to be in someone else’s canoe to be part of a team. It’s like I’m riding my own canoe along with other people riding theirs on the same body of water.”

I continued asking questions. I wanted to know what the water was like (calm or tumultuous?); what it was like paddling alongside the others. Thomas answered my questions, elaborating in his own voice and discovering his own images. My fingers ran across the keys, capturing it all with the same gusto I would have used if the ghost of Frost or Cummings were speaking.

“We’re paddling so we can get across…” he said.

“To where?” I asked.

“To a home… Or. Uh, another country,” he paused.

“How can we finish this?” I asked, sensing we were near a conclusion. I called Thomas’ attention to the first line about how “life is but a dream” and pointed out that many times poets like to loop back to their starting place as a way of tying things together.

"Or a dream!” Thomas said and the poem was finished.

Donald Hall says that when a poem arrives at its proper close, you can hear it as clearly as a latch closing. Thomas and I found that end by working together—something not all poets experience.

Canoe

Makes me think of a nursery rhyme.
Life is but a dream.

It makes me think of teamwork.
I don’t have to be in someone else’s canoe to be part of a team.
I’m riding my own canoe
along with other people riding theirs
On the same body of water,
A lake.
It may seem competitive, but
What we’re really trying to do is just move along and just do.

The lake can be like a river because
We always have to make quick decisions
Because the lake might have tide pools or be wavy
And rocky.

We see people struggling,
to survive riding their canoes.
People paddling too slow, going the wrong ways. We might think
Someone’s going too slow,
but they’re just taking their time
Or going as fast as they can.

Other times, we see people tipping,
And we make sure they don’t drown.
Sometimes people need to be allies of the others
Riding the canoes.
So it won’t ever have to be up to one person
To be the hero of the person drowning.
So we can make it across
To the other side of the lake.
So we can find a home,
Another country,
Or a dream.

Thomas developed this canoe picture into a metaphor for an ideal community—one where the members helped each other, and accepted individual needs and struggles. A dream, yes. A source of inspiration—yes, as well. 

Challenge 7: Youth sometimes need an external structure for their personal writing.
Lesson Learned: By gently doing this, mentors can speak peace and truth into a chaotic mind.


I read the completed poem “Canoe” out loud to Thomas.

Thomas was pleased and left considerably happier than when he’d come in, agreeing to work with me some more. 

He continued to produce poems using this method, tackling a list of subjects increasing incrementally in psychological weight.

Here is a poem he wrote on illness:

Illness

Being conflicted
Like I can’t make up my mind
Like motion sickness.

Feeling like
A father to my brother,
An old man to my father
A baby to my mom
Like a stranger to my family.

Feeling like a coward to other people
Feeling helpless and not capable
Of helping anyone else
Like a coyote
Trying to survive
And feeling lost.

The coyote laughs sometimes
Because he’s not sure how to survive
 walking across the streets alone.
At home with his pack, he’s
Vulnerable and worrisome as a pup.

I feel conflicted with myself.
Like a friend to the coyote
So the coyote doesn’t get lost
In the streets.

Through this poem, Thomas speaks clearly about his illness. It was an emotional process, and the poem is difficult to read. But honest, true, and coherent. None truer than the last line where Thomas admits his own confliction as he watches himself, a confused but compassionate observer at times. 

Challenge 8: Helping youth to share their work.
Lesson Learned: Ultimately it’s their choice. They can ignore your prods if they want; but if they accept, they could experience a moment of communal connection in an otherwise isolated existence.


Thomas continued to struggle with his illness up to the completion of the project. 

At the end of the program, we normally have an informal reading where youth authors read to a small group of service providers and friends/family members they choose to invite. 

As the finale approached, Thomas became more and more symptomatic. He became convinced that people were going to persecute him for his writings and that even if he printed his writings anonymously, his style was unique enough that “racist bigots” would still be able to identify him. 

I would re-direct him. But his paranoid thoughts were too numerous and rushing for me to challenge them all. Sometimes when I would challenge him, he’d pitch up from his chair and require a walk around the room before he was able to sit down again. Other times, I would have another staff member tap me out. Though I hid it pretty well, I got angry inside at his illness—his auto-immune disorder of the mind that was ready to attack every good thing he was trying to do. 

But Thomas also had a drive to finish that was stronger. 

He showed up for the reading, hair done in a neat faux-hawk with neo-Goth-punk eyeliner donned. 

We had the reading in a sunlit room of the community center. Only five or six people were there. All sitting in a circle, ready to hear Thomas’ truth. 

In the moments before the reading started, Thomas, shaking, turned to me and expressed, perhaps, a more rational worry: that people simply would not like his writing.

“Thomas, you’re an interesting person. People will love it.”

“Thank you for telling me that. People don’t tell me enough,” he said.

Hearing something like that kind of makes it all worth it for me.

He read. He read poems I was sure he would be too scared to share. He shared them in a voice quiet but constant and his mouth curved occasionally out of mirth and joy.

Thomas introduced his collection of poems, “The Forest in My Brain,” as being about someone struggling with identity and illness. 

“It’s about someone who wants to be a part of other people’s lives. But isn’t sure how to be,” he said.

And so I come back to writing—It’s a way for the individual to create rather than simply suffer. To take control rather than be controlled—by fear, by addiction, by abusive authority, etc…. To speak truth into one’s own mind and into the streets. The streets echo. So do, sometimes, the forests in young people’s brains. 

Writing is something that can be done in community. It’s a way for us to get involved. It’s something you can teach to young people like Rickson, Alexandra, and Thomas, who are in the throes of emotional distress, though the writing process may be a challenge to the student and mentor alike.

Want a challenge? Email me (shaunm@ccsww.org) for more about my project and how to get involved writing with youth in trouble.