Michael Jefferson is an AmeriCorps*VISTA member serving with the Youth Empowered Society (YES) in Baltimore, MD. Founded and run by formerly homeless youth and their allies, YES works to end homelessness in Baltimore by supporting currently and formerly homeless youth in becoming leaders in our community and by providing desperately needed direct services to homeless youth.
Everyone deserves to go home.
In the several years since I started volunteering in Baltimore, this simple statement has become a core principle for me and a source of tremendous inspiration. As an AmeriCorps*VISTA with the Youth Empowered Society (YES) Drop-In Center, and as a volunteer with various nonprofits, I’ve heard hundreds of firsthand stories about the dehumanizing consequences of homelessness. Families torn apart by evictions, young women and men forced to survive on the streets after fleeing abuse at home, constant psychological oppression caused by disrespect and even hateful treatment -these experiences are tragically common for many of the folks I work with. Their stories and, more importantly, the bonds I’ve forged with my community since beginning this work has taught me that certain needs are so fundamental to a person’s life and well-being that everyone deserves them.
My journey to discover this truth started in the winter of 2009. At the time, the Great Recession was causing massive layoffs worldwide and, by chance, I started volunteering with a small grassroots group that shared food with several people who were living under the I-83 overpass in downtown Baltimore. I will always remember the night I spoke with one of the men who was living there. Sharing stories over cups of soup below the overpass, he told me that he lost his home when he was laid off during the early months of the recession. Now, with nowhere else to turn, he was forced to sleep in the dirt and the cold below the highway. The injustice of it was overwhelming and unspeakable. The visceral impact woke me up and filled me with a burning desire to become an activist in the struggle to combat homelessness and poverty.
Fortunately, the anger I felt that night is not my only source of commitment to democracy and working with my community. At the heart of it all, my work is driven by an unshakable love for people. I am endlessly inspired by the resilience and potential of the people I work with, and though painful, these stories have also allowed me to see the greatness of the human spirit. The youth who come to YES are brilliant and often full of energy and I cannot help but wonder how magnificent the world would be if circumstances permitted them to pursue their dreams. Love of people above all else has driven me to become a meaningful participant in the struggle to end poverty and its many manifestations.
I am also incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to share many beautiful aspects of my work with the broader community. The volunteers I’ve met I truly believe are some of Baltimore’s most inspiring citizens. The energy and passion they bring to the drop-in center make YES a wonderful place to be. The artistic activities that volunteers make YES a place of awesome creativity, and their educational workshops make it a place of hope and possibility. Everyone learns at YES: volunteers teach youth who in turn teach volunteers, and everyone (often without realizing it) teaches me about humankind and our infinite depth, complexities, and insatiable curiosity.
Sharing even a small piece of my story as one of many participants at YES is a pleasure. As words will forever fail to express its power, we welcome you to share a part of the action and come visit us!