Photo courtesy of UT Dallas.

Arts & Entertainment

UT Dallas Student Tells the Stories of Homeless Teens

Nancy Fairbank's book puts a human face on an issue affecting people around the world.

When Nancy Fairbank was a junior at Central High School in Springfield, Missouri, she learned about The Rare Breed. It might sound cool and maybe even mysterious, but The Rare Breed isn’t a strange plant or undiagnosed disease. It’s a haven for homeless teenagers.

Fairbank took it upon herself to learn more about the homeless youth in Springfield. She, along with a partner, ended up filming a short documentary about the basic needs center for their broadcast journalism class.

“I didn’t fully realize at that point in my life that teenage homelessness was a thing. I mean, I knew that it happened, but I had no idea how prevalent it was and that it was an issue in my community,” Fairbank says. “After making that documentary, I became really passionate about the subject and really wanted to work to help these teens and make a difference in that regard.”

Now a senior in college, Fairbank continued to work on the project throughout her undergraduate years at UT Dallas for a book, Throwaway Youth: Stories of Springfield’s Homeless Teens. The 113-page book, released in March, shares the stories of five teens and details their experiences being homeless at a young age.

“Instead of seeing just facts and statistics, you really get a sense of what it might be like for a person to be 15 and not know where they’re going to sleep that night,” Fairbank explains. “I think it really humanizes the issue of teen homelessness.”

One story Fairbank says heavily impacted her was that of a teen who had left home due to severe neglect and abuse by her stepfather. She ended up getting impregnated and sexually assaulted while living on the streets. She was only 16.

“That really hit home for me when I was doing that interview because that’s how old I was at the time,” Fairbank says. “It made me very grateful for what I had been given, but at the same time, very deeply angry that we could be living in a society where this sort of neglect could be happening to someone at that age.”

The book and documentary primarily focus on Springfield, but Fairbank says teen homelessness is an international problem. This summer she traveled to Iceland, Portugal, and Spain for an independent study and studied the topic as it affects teens around the world. As a collegiate, she’s researched the issue here with Dr. Carol Lanham at UT Dallas.

“We created a program that is aimed at homeless youth that are still in school in the Dallas Independent School District,” Fairbank says. “It’s a drug prevention and intervention program that’s now been implemented in two DISD schools.”

Fairbank also says that while she would like to see more programs aimed at helping the growing population of homeless youth in Dallas, one such group, Focus on Teens, is working to tackle the problem. The program reaches teens that are in the early stages of homelessness and provide food and services to at-risk students in the Dallas school system.

But it still isn’t enough for Fairbank. She’s advocated through her book, a TEDx event, and one day hopes to turn her book into a play, just as a theater company at Missouri State University did. To Fairbank, students can make a great impact.

“I’d love to see more action surrounding teen homelessness in Dallas. I think UT Dallas might be a great place for that to start with student activism or students coming together in that capacity to focus on that population,” Fairbank says. “Youth homelessness needs more awareness across the U.S., including in Dallas.”

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