reflections on Touched By An Angels’s street kids 15 years later and the power of seeing ourselves reflected

Touched By An Angel “Children of the Night”

Ok, confession – I was remarkably uncool as a kid. I also as I’ve talked about before grew up in an incredibly controlling environment.  Pretty much everything I did, watched, and read was monitored. I remember sneaking a copy of “A Child Called It” probably my freshman year in High School and for the first time realized that I was being abused –but that’s a whole different story about the power books have always played in my ability to see and understand myself and the world around me. But this post isn’t about that – it’s about confessing to the kinda embarrassing television I watched.  There was a period of time in the early mid 90’s where I was obsessed with ‘Touched By An Angel’ and I watched it every Sunday night.  I don’t remember much about the show at this point other than one episode that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.  It was about street kids and was the very first time I’d ever seen homeless youth in the media, it was the first time I’d ever heard anyone even talk about homeless youth.

I remember when it aired I taped it on my family’s VCR and would watch the show over and over again. It sounds silly now, but by the time that show aired I’d already been fantasizing for years about running away and building a home and family with other kids – I’m not sure where the idea came from but it was the fantasy I rocked myself to sleep with every night. Seeing this episode was a really pivotal moment where for only an instant I believed that maybe it could happen, that I could get away, that maybe I’d find other kids, that maybe someday I’d be ok.   This afternoon out of nowhere I got to thinking about the show and sure enough thanks to the magic of the internet was able to rewatch it for the first time in 15 years and a half dozen lifetimes.

I was in tears within the first three minutes where one of the angels Tess says that these “runaway, throwaway” kids are actually a family schooling Monica one of the other angels who had just made a comment about how she thought their “assignment” was to work with a family and she didn’t see one. This is are talking mainstream 90’s Christian television we’re talking about so I went into watching it tonight prepared to shatter the memory of what the show had meant to me. These kinds of media artifacts don’t tend to age well, and my expectations were pretty low.  The episode was not without flaws – there was the anticipated awkward/cheesy/uncomfortable God moments which if I’m being honest were a struggle for me because of my numerous unresolved God issues as much as anything else.  My biggest critique is that China the young sex worker was killed by a client—this of course is an all too common reality, but it doesn’t mean I want to see one more media representation of a sex worker being murdered.

The premise of the show is about a street family of kids who each have their own path and struggle and the angels are there to gain their trust – again not without flaws.  But they do interesting things that I rarely see in mainstream media portrayals of homelessness, not one of the kids is vilified, when Monica makes fun of the hair/piercings etc. of the kids she’s chastised and told that doesn’t matter, and they spend time talking about the ways in which the kids name themselves, and the depth and meaning behind the chosen names which on the surface seem strange and random but actually carry great meaning. For example, China the youth mentioned above as she begins to build a friendship with Monica explains that she picked her name because of the fancy china dishes people use on special occasions, that someday she will have some of her own and that she plans to use it everyday. She goes onto say that when people say her name it makes her feel special.  Sure in the midst of cheesy 90’s television the story is a bit trite- and yet on some level for me it worked because of how many people I know/have known whose chosen names carry similar stories.

In the end two kids die, Ally the youngest and newest to the street goes home to her parents and the “family that was shattered when she left.” But the episode was not the unexamined reunification propaganda that I was anticipating. The one very young girl does go home, and that is a bit of an overpowering theme BUT it’s not the only story-taking place.  Doc the street father avoids death by leaving the streets/squats entering the hospital to treat TB – but only once he’s insured his surviving street family has been taken care of.  Although the initial doctor he sees seems to be making reference to some kind of forced family reunification, but the angels make clear that when he’s healthy he will be going to the youth shelter.

Perhaps the most powerful moment of the episode for me came within the first three minutes in an exchange between Monica and Tess:

Monica- “so our assignment is to get them back home?”

Tess –  “ Oh no, that’s how the world has failed them so far, they just want to get rid of them and send them back where they came from. We’ve got to do better than that. We’ve got to give them what they need, not what we think they need.”

That’s when the tears started. The episode was not without substantial flaws and yet imbedded in it was more harm reduction and trauma informed approach language than I hear 15 years later from many homeless youth direct service providers!!!

I love that * this* this was a message I heard even for an instant all those years ago. I love that I heard someone say – the family those kids built is real, that I heard someone say the answer is not to get them “back home,” and that what actually is needed is exactly what they say they/we say is needed not someone else’s version of what their/our lives could be. Of course I remembered nothing about having seen that episode when I was kicked out, all I knew in that moment and those moments that immediately followed was how alone I felt- but then something happened—I found community, I found packs of kids like me and we built families so much stronger than anything I’d ever been told was “family” in my childhood.

Consistently repeated through the episode was the message that these kids had been burned, that they didn’t trust because they had not reason to, that they were used to being given up on and it was legitimate for them to expect similar treatment in the future. I really appreciated that message.  Like most of us with this past trust still, all these years later is difficult for me. I can name on less than one hand the number of people I *actually * trust and you can be damn sure they are all folks who I’ve built family with. I’m a little embarrassed writing a whole blog post about an episode of Touched By An Angel, after all the show itself is not without immense complication and I know I’ve not even scratched the surface of that, and yet I can’t deny how incredibly touched (pun intentional) by this first/only representation of homeless teens I was as a pre-teen who dreamed of successfully running away and escaping.

As complicated as it is media is a profoundly powerful force in our lives.  The initial idea for Kicked Out came at 17 when newly homeless I went to the public library and realized there were no books I could find about queer homeless youth – I felt unbearably alone in that moment and promised myself that if I survived I would make a book so no one else would feel like I did in that moment.  I didn’t yet understand that queer youth homelessness was an epidemic, I had no idea how unreasonable it was to think that I would be able to create something that would touch *every * other current/former homeless queer kid. In the last couple of years since our release I’ve gotten messages from former homeless youth who’ve expressed that in the pages of Kicked Out for the very first time they felt like they saw their experience reflected back at them. I’ve received messages from currently homeless youth who told me they ranway/were kicked out with only their backpack and stuffed inside under clothes and toiletries was their copy of the Kicked Out anthology, that carrying it with them made them feel less alone.