Thursday, August 22, 2013

Interview with Debra Borys-Bend Me Shape Me-about the real life tragedy that is homeless teens

Today on The Reading Frenzy I'm bringing to you an interview with Debra Borys who is talking to me today about her heartbreaking novel based on a homegrown tragedy we all face here in the US; homeless teens. Here's part of her answer when I asked her if there was light at the end of the tunnel.–"There is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Even if some of them don’t get there in time. It’s like Jack, the Night Moves therapist in Painted Black, says, “All you can do is try to save them all, and hope none of the good ones slip away..."

  • ISBN-13: 9781614690412
  • Publisher: New Libri Press
  • Publication date: 7/30/2013
  • Pages: 222

Snow Ramirez hasn’t trusted anyone in a very long time, not even herself. Memories of her childhood on Washington’s Yakama Reservation haunt her even on the streets of Chicago. When her squat mate Blitz slits his own throat in front of her, she knows it’s time to convince someone to trust her instincts.

Please welcome to The Reading Frenzy Debra Borys whose Street Stories series reflects the real problem of homeless street teens.

Debra, welcome, tell us a little about this novel Bend Me, Shape Me and your Street Stories series.
Thanks, Debbie, for giving me this chance to talk about the series. I love being able to share details like this. Because the character of Snow has been diagnosed bi-polar, it is difficult for the adults around her to take her concerns seriously. They think she is overreacting or perhaps even delusional. The reader, also, needs to sort through the angst and rage running through her mind to try to differentiate the truth. Is the psychiatrist that’s treating Snow’s brother responsible for Blitz’s suicide? Does that really mean, then, that her brother might be his next victim? Getting inside Snow’s head allows the reader to get to know her and care about what happens. Whatever the truth is, they want her to find a solution and be safe.

The main suspense plots in both books have been sparked by odd, sometimes obscure news stories that I read about and then do the traditional “what if?” thinking most writers engage in. For Bend Me, Shape Me, the news item was about a family suing their son’s psychiatrist for terrorizing the autistic boy in the name of therapy. The What If was “What if the kid didn’t have loving parents to notice or care?” This is what happens too many times to kids who have been kicked out or have to leave home to escape abuse or injustice. In the series, the protagonist is a reporter who not only notices and cares, but is willing to do something about it, even if it risks her own safety.
Debra, tell us how you personally got involved with homeless teens?
I had the idea for the main character, Jo Sullivan, before I actually had the concept for the series. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago and started volunteering with the homeless there that I knew I wanted to use the series to give a voice to the people I met there. The first program I volunteered at in Chicago was Emmaus Ministries, which reaches out to young men on the street involved in prostitution. I walked the streets late at night with a staff person just meeting and talking with guys standing on street corners looking to make a little money for food and shelter.

When I began volunteering with Chicago’s Night Ministry, I was able to develop more long term acquaintances with some kids. One of the programs I was involved in weekly was visiting their youth shelter where kids can stay and get help completing school or getting a job and move on to transitional housing. Because I saw some of the same kids multiple times, I got to know them as individuals. By leading a writing workshop and working with a couple young men to study for their GED, I was able to learn bits and pieces of their stories. From that, I realized that if only everyone took time to listen, to get to know the homeless as people instead of lumping them under the “homeless” label, that alone could make a difference in the lives of these kids.

What portion of this countries homeless are teens?
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness about 50,000 youth sleep on the streets in the U.S. for six months or more. Quoting from their website: “The most commonly quoted number of homeless youth under the age of 18, just under 1.7 million, comes from the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children, more commonly known as the NISMART.”

The site also shows the table below, gathered from The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Estimated Number of Young Adults
81 percent
9 percent
10 percent
100 percent

But I feel that statistics and numbers aren’t the real story. When you start looking, you will find estimates vary and are confusing. The only number that counts is how many kids you pass by as you’re walking to work from the train station. How many kids are turned away from the shelter in your neighborhood because the beds are filled?

Are your stories based on real teens or real situations?
The street kids in my stories are composites of people I met and are influenced by the personalities of some I got to know on a personal basis. I’ve witnessed Snow’s bi-polar behavior exhibited in several kids and her “mother bear protecting her cubs” devotion reflects two kids I knew personally. The sweet yet off-kilter personality of her brother reminds me of someone I still keep in touch with to this day.

The suspense plots, as I mentioned, are inspired by real life news stories, but the backgrounds and family dynamics of my characters are entirely made up. There are secondary scenes, however, that are fictionalized versions of things I saw or experienced. In Painted Black for instance, the first book in the series, Jo walks around the Lakeview neighborhood looking for Chris. I walked that same neighborhood with the Emmaus Ministries and visited it many times volunteering with the Night Ministry. We even sat on a bench one night to talk with a young man wearing headphones and bopping to an old Metallica song. I simply changed the conversation to be relevant to the storyline.

Debra, you’ve volunteered working with what you term “throwaway youth”.
What is one thing any of us can do to help even one teen off the streets?
The one thing everyone can and should do is very simple. Notice them. Smile as you pass, maybe even say hi. If they ask you for money and you don’t want to give them any, just smile politely and say, “Sorry, I can’t today.” Nine times out of ten, if you treat them with respect, they will return the favor. Being treated as invisible and contemptuous only erodes a person’s self-esteem which leads to antisocial anger and/or depression. 

Once you start doing this, you might find yourself taking the next step, which is to engage with them. Offer to buy them a bag of chips or something from the local drug store. Stop and talk a minute. Learn their name. Find out more about them if they are willing to share. Seeing them as people not that much different from ourselves is the first step toward social changes that could make great strides in eliminating homelessness.

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for any of these youth?
There is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Even if some of them don’t get there in time. It’s like Jack, the Night Moves therapist in Painted Black, says, “All you can do is try to save them all, and hope none of the good ones slip away.” Youth workers and volunteers around the country are making huge differences in the lives of individual kids through the many programs, opportunities and shelters out there. There is much more hope for the youth than there is for some of the adults who are chronically homeless. The kids still have time and enthusiasm and energy to help them fight through to the brighter side.

What’s the biggest false belief we have of homeless teens?
That they are the juvenile delinquent versions of the smart-mouthed egotistical teens we know with homes but no respect for others. I would trust most of the street kids I got to know and received more respect from them then I do from some privileged kids with bright futures and parents willing to bail them out of every jam. Street kids come in all sizes, ethnicities, abilities and personalities but I’ve found them to be more appreciative of what little they have than those who have pretty much anything they want.

Debra, who is your main reading audience, adults or younger?
The language in the books is very true to real life street talk, which often means vulgarities. In addition, some of the scenes are dark, violent or sexual in nature. For those reasons, I see the series primarily as adult books, though I would have loved reading them as a teenager myself.

Debra will you be attending any signings/author events in the near future?
I’ve been waiting for the print book release of Bend Me, Shape Me, before scheduling signings and events. That will be live online next week (week of August 4-10) so I can start firming up dates with my contacts. One event I’ve been planning is a joint book signing and fund raiser for The Night Ministry in Chicago. My publisher is donating all profits from any books sold during the event to TNM. I just need to find out what timing works for them.

I also intended to contact my local libraries to do readings and hope the visibility generated by the fundraiser above will increase the chances some Chicago bookstores will be open to my inquiries about doing book signings. Keed watch on my blog for news about dates and events.

Thank you so much for taking the time to enlighten us about your novel and this tragic societal problem.
Good luck with the novel and with your crusade.

For a great review of the novel click the link to read Kimba the Caffeinated Book Reviewer’s review.


Debra reads from Painted Black



  1. Wonderful interview, and I enjoyed hearing more about this plight that many of our nations children and adults face. I so agree about showing them respect and not ignoring them. Thanks for the shout-out Debbie for my review, I quite enjoyed Debra's tale.

    1. Thanks Kim for the comment it's a startling statistic