As patrons of the Island Church of Whidbey soup kitchen finished their meals, lively piano music mingled with the scents and sounds of lunchtime as one amicable young woman nimbly tickled the ivory keys. Like many of the soup kitchen visitors, she is without a home.
Madeline Lusk, 19, comes by the soup kitchen each Thursday in order to receive a warm meal. Until recently, Lusk and her best friend, Graham, a young man whom she affectionately calls her “road dog” were camped out in a tent near Coles Road.
Lusk has been without permanent housing for nearly two years. Graham has been on the streets for nearly seven.
After her parents died when she was 11 years old, Lusk moved in with her aunt in Indianapolis. The relationship was tumultuous, Lusk said, and her aunt kicked her out on her 18th birthday.
Lusk’s story is not uncommon amongst homeless youth. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, one study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that over half of homeless teens interviewed said they had been kicked out by a family member, or that their family “didn’t care” that they were leaving.
Initially, Lusk stayed in Indianapolis but soon left for Northern California where she eventually met her companion, Graham, whose grandmother had lived in Brookhaven in Langley until about a year ago. Based on his fond memories of South Whidbey, the pair determined that it would be a favorable next destination.
“Madeline is a pretty intelligent young woman. I think she is going to go far with support,” said Judy Thorslund, chairwoman of the South Whidbey Homeless Coalition. “That’s what they’ve been looking for, that’s why they ended up here on Whidbey Island.”
Lusk said she is “really grateful” for South Whidbey’s initiative to aid homeless individuals.
The South Whidbey Homeless Coalition has been working to establish a warming center at the Langley United Methodist Church. The center will be open when the temperature drops below 35 degrees, offering homeless individuals shelter and safety. As of Wednesday, Susan Gilles, a member of the South Whidbey Homeless Coalition, said they are still working to sort out insurance details before they will be able to open, weather permitting.
Lusk has never stayed in a shelter. She explained that finding a secure spot to rest in a rural area like South Whidbey is a far different process than finding such a place in a city. But the onset of winter means a compounded struggle regardless of location.
The first summer, Lusk said, was somewhat enjoyable. She quickly determined that Indianapolis was an unsavory place for a young woman to roam alone and traveled to California where she relished her newfound freedom.
With the onset of colder weather and shorter days, Lusk said, the enjoyment quickly dissipated.
South Whidbey’s first major snowfall left Lusk, Graham and all of their belongings entirely soaked and freezing. Sleeping was next to impossible, she recalled. Afterward, a friend offered Lusk and Graham a place to stay as freezing temperatures and harsh storms signaled imminent danger.
Along with the threatening winter weather, said Lusk, living on the streets brings a host of other adverse situations, such as theft and harassment.
In part, Lusk speculated, she believes some individuals behave rudely because there is no one to care for them.
“If you’re that low and out on the street, not many people are out there trying to help you with anything, let alone mental issues,” she said.
Depression, she said, can set in quickly.
“How can you take care of your depression when you can’t even feed yourself?” she questioned. “Homeless people have to work to live, not just work for a living but work to live, period. It’s not easy.”
Despite such challenges, Lusk said she has also received several gestures of kindness from people on South Whidbey and beyond. When she became stranded alone in the Midwest with appendicitis, hospital staff ensured she received more than an emergency appendectomy. Lusk had been hitchhiking back to California after a trip to visit her brother when she felt excruciating pain. When she explained her situation to hospital staff post-surgery, the staff paid for Lusk’s prescription, bought her groceries, gave her $300 for a bus ticket to California and booked her a motel room for the night.
The staff’s generosity, Lusk said, was entirely unexpected and immensely appreciated.
Others often do what they can, she said, by purchasing her shoes, underwear, socks or foodstuffs.
Traveling, hitchhiking or being on the streets may be regarded as a hazardous decision. But Lusk contended that she has learned more about humanity in the past two years than she ever did in school.
She said that though stereotypes abound — that homeless people are “lazy or careless or a waste” — many individuals she met had simply lost their way, whether due to crises or an inability to cope with the pressures and stress of life.
“People just need care. Nobody cares about them, so they don’t care about themselves,” she said. “They just need to feel like they’re not a waste, and then you’d be amazed at what they could do.”
Lori Cavender, executive director at Ryan’s House for Youth, was notified of Lusk’s situation and has been working to connect both Lusk and Graham with support services. Cavender is presently working to place Lusk with a host family. As of Tuesday, Cavender said Lusk is in the process of getting to know a potential host while she continues to stay with her friend.
“They’re both totally open to being teachable, to move forward, to get out of that trap that the street has,” said Thorslund of Lusk and Graham.
Lusk graduated from high school with an honors diploma and said she would like to attend college. Cavender said she will be helping to make that possible.
“I have no idea what I want to do for the rest of my life…except not be homeless,” said Lusk. “I’ve watched people die in the last two years, lost everything I owned, had some pretty hard times. But all things considered, I don’t think I’m too messed up because of it. I think I’ve kept my head up pretty well.”