WASHINGTON — You’re 16, homeless and sleeping on a park bench when police grab you at 3 in the morning. Vagrancy, trespassing or a host of minor offenses send you tumbling into the juvenile justice system.
Or you’re 16, do something stupid with marijuana, get caught trespassing, missing curfews or skipping school. You have a home but no true family support system, and suddenly, with a criminal record, nobody’s hiring, school expelled you and your family tossed you out of the house. You too wind up homeless.
The connection between youth homelessness and the juvenile system is the subject of a sweeping new study by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and several of its partners. The report makes recommendations for policymakers, law enforcement and youth advocates and provides broad insights into a problem that has plagued juveniles for decades.
“Each year, nearly 380,000 minors experience ‘unaccompanied’ homelessness — meaning they are homeless and without a parent or guardian — for a period of longer than one week,” the report said. “These young people, much like their adult counterparts, are often cited, arrested, charged, and/or incarcerated instead of being provided with the supports they need. One million youth are also involved with law enforcement or the juvenile justice system each year, an experience that can increase their likelihood of becoming homeless.”
“It’s an aspirational document because we realize different communities are at different places, so the goal was to create something broad enough and offer enough solutions so people can pick out what works for them,” said Naomi Smoot, executive director of the Coalition. “It can be very frustrating to communities if you outline a host of problems, but don’t provide resources and ideas. The whole second half of the document was about providing those ideas.”
The study, “Addressing the Intersections of Juvenile Justice Involvement and Youth Homelessness: Principles for Change,” points to a form of double punishment many youth experience.
First they are abused, neglected or mistreated at home. The stress of living in such conditions or already being on the street most of the time create tensions and fear. The teen lashes out at a classmate, a fight ensues and assault charges funnel the youth into the juvenile justice system.
Homeless boys and girls often trade sex for shelter, or money to get shelter, and are charged with prostitution, even though in most states they would be classified as sexual abuse victims.
Authors of the study examined how more innocuous situations also lead to the justice system: A teen with a troubled home life stays with a friend’s family, but it’s a long way from his local school. Soon, truancy charges are filed, and another trip to the court system begins.
Citing a 2016 study by the Administration on Children, Youth and Families that interviewed 656 homeless youth, the report noted that 44 percent had been in a juvenile detention center, jail or prison. Nearly 62 percent had been arrested at some point, and more than half had been kicked out of their homes by the families.
To combat this, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice lists 10 Principles, recommendations and guidelines for those dealing with homeless youth who wind up in the justice system.
“Ensure that the laws and policies in your jurisdiction do not lead youth experiencing homelessness to be cited, arrested, or charged for survival acts or ‘quality of life’ offenses,” the first principle states.
Other recommendations include having courts and law enforcement set up diversion and treatment programs that will help avoid a criminal record while providing needed services. It also recommends that communities strengthen family-related services, and have long- and short-term housing available for youth who wind up on the street.
Smoot said the report is part of a broader project called “Collaboration for Change” that includes CJJ and many other partners. The study itself was a collaboration: Lead author Lisa Pilnik, director of Child & Family Policy Associates, received input from more than two dozen experts and partner organizations while writing the study.
The study makes special mention of the challenges facing LGBT youth, who it says are disproportionately likely to become homeless and to enter the justice system. Many LGBT youth are kicked out of their homes by family members. The study cites estimates that about 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBT.
“Provide and require meaningful gender and cultural responsiveness staff training that increases knowledge and skills, with a particular focus on LGBTQ youth, youth of color, youth with disabilities, and the reasons they are more at risk for homelessness and justice involvement,” the study recommends.
The report’s authors also warned against any efforts to make LGBT youth change their sexual orientation.
“Ensure that no young person will be subjected to or referred to programs that attempt to alter their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e., ‘conversion’ therapy).”
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NEW YORK — Tears of joy streamed down her face as she covered her mouth with her hands, staring in amazement at the portrait of the proud mother smiling over the shoulder of a young girl with the dancing brown eyes.
“Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous,” Colleen Morgridge, said to her daughter, in near disbelief. “That’s us!”
Morgridge, 47, who is homeless, was getting her first look at a large portrait of her and her daughter, on display as part of Art Start’s Family Portrait Exhibit.
First launched in 2013 by Art Start, the Family Portrait Project is a collaboration between homeless families and professional photographers to document homelessness with family portraits and oral histories. The exhibit kicked off its latest installment with a reception Wednesday evening at the South Street Seaport and will be on display through the end of the year.
The project, which this time features 16 families, grew out of Art Start’s workshops for children, now held in eight homeless shelters across New York City. Founded in 1991, Art Start programming ranges from visual art to dance to gardening.
Morgridge could barely be heard about the excited crowd that had gathered to admire her portrait, which was among several bathed in soft lighting that filled the room. Photographers and mothers, who hadn't seen each other since the day of the shoot, chatted and shared stories of their current struggles and victories as children ran eagerly from portrait to portrait, shouting excitedly when they came to their family's piece. An unmistakably buttery smell wafted through the air, drawing both kids and adults to one corner of the room where chefs offered freshly made grilled cheese sandwiches.
Christina McKnight, who has been homeless since January, got involved with Art Start via their gardening program. Her three boys like digging in the dirt, so it was a perfect match, she said. Then she jumped at the chance to have their family portrait taken.
And she’s glad she did.
“Taking those photos, getting to express ourselves and to share like this in an art gallery, it’s the best,” McKnight said.
Photographer Ken Pao, one of several professional photographers who participated in the project, said he had a blast.
“Kids are naturally spontaneous and fun to work with,” he said.
Both McKnight and Pao said they are especially proud of their finished product, which includes a portrait that captures the entire family seemingly suspended in midair.
Hannah Immerman, Art Start’s co-executive director, said fostering pride and increasing self-confidence are goals that run through all their programs. The organization runs a similar program for court-involved youth and operates at five of the city’s alternative-to-incarceration centers.
Another top goal, she added, is changing the public’s cold and inaccurate perception of homelessness. “This can happen to anyone,” she said. “The families we work with are just like us.”
For instance, one-quarter of adults in homeless families work, but do not make enough to cover the expenses of rent. And the homeless, particularly families with children, experts say, are susceptible to becoming victims of violence, human trafficking and other crimes. Children who are able to attend school end up struggling because the trauma associated with homelessness can disrupt the child’s still-developing brain.
Across New York City, the homeless rate is rising. According to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness nearly 84,000 of the system’s 1.1 million students were homeless during the 2013–14 school year, a 25 percent increase since 2010-11. The institute also says the rate of homelessness in the city is the highest since the Great Depression.
But tonight, McKnight has only one immediate concern — she said she can’t even begin to express how grateful she is for what Art Start has done for her and her boys.
“All I can say is I thank them a thousand times.,” she said. “They have given me something I truly cherish.”
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Experts estimate about 2 million kids run away from home each year putting them at greater risk of physical or sexual abuse, homelessness, drug addiction and physical and mental health problems. Many are in need of medical care or other services. To ensure runaways get the help they need, police in St. Paul, Minn. who encounter runaways are using a short, 10-question screening tool to assess the runaway’s safety and whether they have been victimized while they’ve been away from home.
Medical professionals and researchers in Minnesota developed the 10-Question Tool with assistance from local police. The process began in 2002 when Laurel Edinburgh, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Children’s Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota’s Midwest Children’s Resource Center (MCRC), talked with Jim Lynch, commander of the St. Paul Police Department’s juvenile unit, about how to screen youth to identify runaways with the highest needs. But Lynch was adamant, Edinburgh said, the survey only include 10 questions because police wouldn’t have time for more.
“The community got together and started thinking about what are the interventions that can be done through the school or the police,” said Edinburgh.
Edinburgh said some of the questions in the tool were modeled on questions included in the Minnesota Student Survey given every three years to students in the 6th, 9th and 12th grades.
In communities employing the 10-Question Tool, Edinburgh said, all police receive training in its use. School resource officers — police assigned to public schools — receive additional training.
Running away is considered a status offense in most states — meaning it’s only illegal for minors — and a primary goal for police officers encountering a runaway is to determine if they need medical attention or other community resources. The questionnaire aids police in making that decision before a kid gets lost in the system, Edinburgh said.
“Because status offenders bounce between many different agencies how can you find the kid and deliver the right type of service to the teen who needs the service?” Edinburgh asked.
According to Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Nathan Whiteman, police should begin an independent investigation if a runaway indicates he or she has been sexually abused.
“The officer should also look at the totality of the circumstances to refer. I think some training related to abuse and exploitation would be beneficial for officers,” Whiteman wrote in an email exchange. But he added that specially trained Crimes Against Children investigators should handle cases of that nature.
Many runaways leave because of sexual or physical abuse in their home. In fact, according to the National Runaway Hotline, more than one third of runaway girls and boys report having been sexually abused, and 43 percent report having been physically abused, before leaving home. Additionally, more than 50 percent of youth in shelters or on the street said their parents either kicked them out or knew they were leaving and did not care.
Estimates of the number of runaways in the nation vary, but a decade's old study by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention put it at some 1.7 million between the ages of 7 and 17. A 2010 study by the Urban Institute estimated that one in five youth had run away from home at some point before reaching age 18.
“Runaways have always been and will always be a concern,” Whiteman said. But parents can help by simply being “present in their child’s life” and listening to them.
When building the questionnaire Edinburgh said it was important to write questions that would provide the most complete picture of a runaway teen, including questions about previous abuse and drug use.
“Are there things we can identify that we know are related to high-risk teens — where we know they have some resiliency — that we can build on?” Edinburgh said.
But for the questionnaire to be effective, the teens must answer honestly.
“If youth are asked questions they do respond to adults who show they care about them,” Edinburgh said. “And we need pathways, once you ask a question, that tell us there’s intervention that can be put in place.”
Often, just knowing they have someone to talk to makes a very big difference for runaways, Edinburgh said.
“We need this kid to know that there is someone at their school or in a truancy program that cares about them; that notices they’ve run away,” Edinburgh said.
But many runaways stop going to school and can easily fall behind, so a primary goal of the 10-Question Tool, Edinburgh said, is “getting kids back to school and getting them on a normal developmental trajectory.”
The 10-Question Screening Tool:
- Why did you leave home?
- How long have you been away from home?
- Who have you been staying with while away from home?
- Did someone touch you in a way you did not like or sexually assault you when you were away from home?
- Do you have health issues that you need medical care for now?
- Has anyone hurt you or tried to hurt you while you were away from home?
- Are you afraid at home? If yes, why? Will you be safe at home? Use a 0–10 scale to quantify safe feeling (In this scale, 0 is safest and 10 is least safe).
- Do you have someone you can talk to at home or school?
- Do you drink or do drugs?
- Are you a member of a gang?
Photo by Child Quest International
As the holidays draw closer, while many college students are spending late nights preparing for final exams and finishing projects, some students are just worried about finding the money to pay for food. At one college in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, students struggling between paychecks have access to a donated food pantry where they can stock up on two-weeks of food.
The Feed the Future program, run by the Psychiatric and Social Services Department of Kennesaw State University and the KSU Staff Senate, feeds up to 30 hungry students each month during the fall and spring semesters, according to the program’s director, Tao Bartleson Mosley, a professor and social worker at the campus health clinic.
“Demand varies by month,” she said. “Summer is slow. It also slows down after financial aid pays out.”
Any student in need will receive 10 to 14 days of non-perishable food; items such as peanut butter, crackers and cans of soup or vegetables. Because it cannot store products such as milk or eggs, Mosley collects gift cards to Wal-Mart and grocery stores, allowing students to purchase food for themselves. Since 2006, Feed the Future has given food to more than 550 students, Mosley said.
Nationwide, more than 49 million Americans were at risk of hunger every day, including more than 16 million children, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But no one knows how many college students are at risk.
Still, the Feed the Future program is critical for students and the university, says KSU Staff Senate President Deborah Chimeno.
“If you are worried about where your next meal is coming from,” she said, “you’re not focused on why you’re really here.” But, she added, it is important to note that the program doesn’t just help homeless students. Any student who is struggling between paychecks and in need of food is welcome.
And in Chimeno’s opinion, helping is the only option.
“We have to stick together,” she said. “That’s what a family does; they help each other.”
But many times, she says, students in need won’t accept the program’s help.
“I don’t want them to feel embarrassed or degraded,” she said. “But how do you give help to people too proud or stubborn to take it?
“What’s the matter with compassion?” she added. “They want privacy. I want them to know there are people who care about them.”
With a shoestring operating budget of only $500 a year, Feed the Future must be creative. The program relies on donations of food and Chimeno isn’t shy about asking for help.
“My job is to get that information out there,” she said.
Chimeno starts with her own organization. She asks each of the senators to bring food donations to the Staff Senate’s monthly meetings. But the Senate is also partnering with other organizations across campus to increase collections.
Each year the KSU Swing Dance Association hosts the “Jump, Jive and Wail” a 1940s swing dance with a live big band. The cost of admission is a donation of food for the Feed the Future program.
Donations have also been taken at soccer and volleyball matches and at events sponsored by the KSU Alumni Association. The History Department even constructed their own permanent collection box. In order to pay for gift cards to grocery stores, Chimeno sells calendars and holds raffles, whatever it takes to keep the program alive and helping students.
The campus response has been very positive.
“We have the most motivated, compassionate team,” Chimeno said.
According to Chimeno, this has lead to record numbers of donations.
“This is the best year we have ever had,” she said.
In fact, the program has received so many donations that it is running out of room at its current storage location and had to expand to a warehouse, Chimeno said.
But the program can always use more donations.
“It’s time to start lighting the TNT and get people thinking [about ways to help],” Chimeno said.
One week back in February, I noticed something amiss at the Miller ranch when I came home from work. Our kid’s friend, Travis* was sitting on our couch enjoying Comedy Central. That wasn’t unusual, but after two weeks I came to the sneaking suspicion that Travis was actually living with us.
After some investigation, we found he was spending his nights on a futon in our son’s room. When asked, our son said he felt sorry for him because he’d been kicked out of the Army, and then lost his job, which caused him to lose his car, which made him homeless because it was where he’d been living.
Like many young people, Travis skated on the edge of homelessness because of a toxic cocktail of life circumstances and the poor economy. How many young people are couch surfing, spending an unfriendly night under a bridge somewhere or attempting to find an empty bed in an overflowing shelter? A report by the National Center on Family Homelessness says that as many as 1.5 million children per year in the United States are homeless.
I was surprised Travis’s parents didn’t provide a soft spot for him to land, until I discovered he lacked a stable family. Divorce, step-families or parents with substance-abuse issues have decimated the stable family units, the ones that used to dominate the 1960’s television screens.
More than 50,000 children under the age of 12, live in precarious situations in Georgia alone. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, the state ranks 49th in providing services to homeless children. (Texas is at the bottom, while Connecticut has the fewest number of homeless children.) The Children’s Restoration Network (CRN) in Roswell, Ga., in suburban Atlanta, works to solve some of the long-term impact from childhood homelessness. According to CRN’s Project One on One Director Ben Minor, “Children's Restoration Network is a nonprofit organization that provides direct and supportive services to homeless children and homeless mothers to help meet their physical, emotional, and academic needs. We work with 134 group homes (basically, modern-day orphanages that generally house 6-10 kids at a time) and emergency shelters throughout 20 metro Atlanta counties. These group homes and shelters house 2,300 - 2,500 homeless children each day and work with over 3,900 homeless children each year.”
CRN’s work touches just the tip of the iceberg. “There is a much greater demand for services for mothers than there is a supply of those services,” said Minor. “The fastest growing segment of the homeless population is children under the age of nine and their mothers.”
The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless estimates there are up to 8,000 homeless children sleeping on couches, staying in extended-stay hotels, living on the street or attempting to find an empty bed at a shelter or group home. Even IF a child lands in a shelter or a group home, it’s unlikely that more than their basic needs such as food, clothing and a place to sleep will be provide.
“Homeless children are in some of the most desperate need of services,” said Minor. “They’re more likely to experience malnutrition and also come from abusive, neglected, or tragic backgrounds so they're twice as likely to have psychological issues (such as anxiety and depression) at a young age and to have behavioral disorders. Academically speaking, they're really behind the eight-ball.”
When a child doesn’t know where he’s going to be the next day and is worried about the basics of clothing and what he’s going to eat, they struggle in school. “Almost 30 percent of homeless children attend three or more schools during an academic year,” said Minor. “As a result of all of these factors, less than 25 percent of homeless children in Georgia graduate from high school.”
So, what’s a Georgian to do to help homeless kids? According to Minor, “The first thing I would say to legislators is that not all homeless people are drug addicts, criminals or layabouts. Most homeless people are diligent members of society who are poor and who hit some bad luck, like a single mother with kids who had an emergency room bill or a person who got laid off from work and had three months expenses saved but has been out of a job for six months. Sixty percent of homeless people have jobs. I've met homeless people with PhD's. We need to recognize that most homeless people need a helping hand and some support to get back up on their feet.”
To tackle the thorny problem of homelessness, Minor had a couple of suggestions to apply prevention to Georgia’s strategy to address homelessness: provide more subsidies for food and housing, assist nonprofits that work in this area with more grant opportunities and expand educational and job-training opportunities for at-risk youth. But, most importantly, provide resources for kids who turn 18 while living in a foster care- or group- home situation.
“Some kids will be "aged out" of the group home when they turn 18,” said Minor. “I don't know many 18-year-olds who are ready to live on their own. So giving these kids at least a couple of years to save money and transition into living independently can also make the transition smoother, so we don't have a homeless child living in the group home when he's 17 and the same young man being a homeless "adult" on the streets on his "18th" birthday.”
So what happened to our futon sleeping Travis? After a couple of weeks and discussions with him about his options, we agreed that his best option was to plug into a local homelessness program. So one Monday night we dropped him by MUST Ministries, a local nonprofit that serves the homeless in our county. MUST Ministries has job training, job placement services and transitional housing that could help him climb back out of his homelessness.
["The Other Side of the Rainbow: Young, Gay and Homeless in Metro Atlanta" is part 1 of a 3 part series on LGBT issues. Bookmark this page for updates.]
In April 2008, Brian Dixon was 18-years-old and homeless. Being gay, he says, only exacerbated his predicament.
After allegedly enduring years of mental and physical abuse, at age 14 Dixon left home to live with his grandparents. Within a year, they placed him in Georgia’s foster care system. From there he bounced around to several group homes. He’d quit high school, but earned a GED before officially “aging out” of the foster care system.
Dixon, who was born in Fort Benning about 90 miles southwest of Atlanta, had dropped to his knees many nights, fervently praying to be granted an extension to remain in the foster care system a bit longer while he worked on his nursing degree from Georgia Perimeter College. His new caseworker, whom Dixon describes as a “devout Christian,” was not in support. She’d convinced her superiors that he was not “a good candidate” for that privilege. He thinks it’s because he’s gay. Within two weeks, Dixon was dropped off with his few belongings at a Southwest Atlanta homeless shelter.
“I was scared; I had nowhere else to go,” recalls Dixon. “That first night they sent me to Covenant House and I just could not handle it. I was still in the foster care mindset. It didn’t really register in my mind that I was actually homeless.”
Strict rules and a curfew at the facility for those aged 17-21, didn’t mesh well with Dixon’s school and work schedule. He tried traditional adult shelters briefly, but ultimately ended up living on the streets of Atlanta. That catapulted him onto a yearlong emotional and heart-wrenching odyssey of illegal drug use, prostitution and “couch-surfing” from one friend’s house to another. He claims in the summer of 2009, he even fell victim to a brutal roadside rape at the hands of two strangers.
Atlanta-based licensed counselor Tana Hall says Dixon’s experiences are common among displaced gay youth.
“A lot of young people in this predicament get sexually exploited because of their homeless situation,” says Hall, who counsels Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) youth at Atlanta-based non-profit, YouthPride. “A lot of young gay boys find themselves trading sex for basic necessities like food and shelter but they won’t tell you that. They’ll tell us, ‘I’m staying with this 45-year-old guy.’ They’re happy to have groceries and a place to stay, but they’re not admitting what’s really going on there.”
As Hall suggests, Dixon is among legions of LGBT teenagers and young adults kicked out of their homes and out of foster care homes primarily because of their sexual orientation. Many claim that the discrimination they face – often rooted in religious conviction – even extends to homeless shelters and into the foster care system. The ostracism, Dixon says, is magnified 10-fold for transgender youth whose androgynous appearance is often harder for others to embrace. Halls says she’s heard staffers at local Christian-based shelters make homophobic comments and it’s upsetting. She often tries to avoid sending her clientele there because she fears discrimination, but sometimes it’s the only option available.
“There’s a disproportionate number of homeless LGBTQ young people out there because of a lack of acceptance from their families and others around them,” says Hall, who also answers calls on YouthPride’s crisis hotline. She and other advocates however, often add an “I” and “Q” to the common acronym, in reference to “intersex,” persons born with both male and female genitalia and “questioning,” as in those questioning their sexual orientation.
“The majority of calls I get on our helpline are young people who have run away because they did not feel that they were accepted in their home,” Hall says. “The primary reason that these young people are homeless is not because of issues like substance abuse or mental illness; it’s due to a lack of acceptance about who they are [from others]. It’s a societal issue.”
Dixon claims the only facility he’s ever formally been kicked out of was one touted as a “Christian group home.” Upon arrival, he says, he was required to sign a form agreeing to never disclose his sexual orientation. He tried unsuccessfully to conceal his sexual identity there.
“People kept asking me about it and I wouldn’t answer them; once they found out I was gay, it was pretty much downhill from there,” recalls Dixon.
“You got any weed?” is how William “Trash” Hansen introduced himself on a hot spring day in the Little 5 Points neighborhood of Atlanta. The heels of his socks peeked through the disintegrated soles of his steel-toed boots as he walked the strip in search of the drug.
If you passed him on the street you may have thought twice before striking up a conversation. If the soot- drenched, patch- woven outfit didn’t give you pause, the blatant drug references and casual cat-calls may have.
Sporadically he’d push back the small puff of dreadlocked hair sprouting from the crown of his head or run his arm across his forehead to wipe away sweat. With each swipe a new abstraction of brake dust and grime clotted against his pale skin.
The dirt on his back came from across the United States. The FourLoko in his pocket, an alcoholic energy drink, came from a nearby convenience store.
At 20, Trash has endured, experienced and seen more of the United States than most will see in their entire lives. He has been riding freight trains around the country for nearly eight years.
Just like everyone, his story is unique, but his tales of foster care, abuse and ultimate freedom are a glimpse into a culture existing on the fringes of society, rarely seen by the general public. Trash and many others like him have no home, yet they call home the hundreds of thousands of miles of railroad that cross the country, the rail cars that bump along the tracks and the expansive yards of gravel and steel found in nearly every American city.
They are the modern vagabonds of today -- sometimes abused and abused by the system without anywhere else to go, sometimes there by choice – young, independent and free to ride the freight lines into their own uncertain futures.
It’s like Trash said after eight years on the rails, his hobo days weren’t anywhere close to coming to an end. Then again, it may be hard to figure where you’ll be in five years when you’re still not sure about your next meal.
“There are some good people… it just depends.”
“When I hit the streets I was 12 years old,” he said. At 13 he hopped his first freight train.
Trash didn’t remember the day he entered foster care. He was young, maybe one or two years old.
At the age of 10, a couple adopted him near his birthplace of Seattle, Wash., He stayed with them until leaving for the streets two years later.
“[That was] two years of the most f*cked up sh*t ever,” he said, followed by a long pause. “I was afraid to walk down the hall to take a piss [when I was grounded], so I’d piss in my closet.”
When Trash was 11, he came in from playing in the yard with grass stains covering his new clothes. His adopted mother started screaming, forcing him to scrub the stains in the kitchen sink, but the streaks were there to stay. Then, without warning, she grabbed a mason jar of smoked salmon from atop the nearby washing machine and smashed it against Trash’s forehead.
“If I didn’t do something right the first time I got beat,” he said with a blank stare.
Eventually he only saw two options: stay in a group home or risk life on the street, eventually getting picked up and sent back to juvenile detention. Staying with his adopted family wasn’t an option.
Trash wasn’t the only foster youth faced with such a stark choice. An estimated 21 to 50 percent of homeless youth reported being placed in foster care or an institutional setting at some point, according to a 2007 report by the National Symposium on Homelessness Research.
“Group homes f*cking sucked,” Trash said. “Your home environment is just like your school environment. You don’t have parents, you have staff.”
“The whole idea about foster care is, it's a temporary arrangement while the state finds the kids a home,” said Amy Dworsky, Senior Researcher with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, adding that foster care and group homes weren’t designed to provide the same support system as a permanent family. “What often happens [before kids leave for the streets] is that young people end up with a couple of different foster families and the arrangements didn’t work out.”
Trash decided to take his chances on the streets. He spent about a year bouncing around Seattle before hopping his first freight train south. Trouble seemed to follow no matter where he went. He has seen the inside of a jail cell more times than he could count.
“I don’t want to ask the same people for change every day.”
While in town you could find him in the plaza at the heart of Little 5 Points.
“I’ll be here every day,” he said. “Just come find me.”
And that’s where he was with his pregnant dog Daisy and a cast of other homeless and nomadic characters only identifiable by their street names – “Trees,” “Twig,” “Torch,”“Karma” and so on.
After flying a sign in front of a nearby retail store Trash had enough money to make it through the day. It took him less than half an hour.
“I live off of kindness and how can’t you be kind if you live off it, you know?” he said. “How can you not?”
Trees, Twig and their dog Stumps – fellow travelers – welcomed the breadstick breakfast with open arms and hungry bellies. They sat on the cool concrete sidewalk and ate, sharing with their canine companions. Every train rider sported a skank, even the dogs.
Daisy, Trash’s pitbull, was due to have puppies in a month or so. Trash planned to give the dogs to other train kids. Daisy was his best friend, he said, and the closest thing he had to family.
The woodland trio of Trees, Twig, and Stumps had been together for about four months.
Trees, 24, had “Thug Lice” scrawled across the bill of his hat and a train track tattooed on his right cheek. He rode the rails on and off for eight years, but has spent the last three months housed up with Twig’s relatives and friends around Georgia.
He said he was from California, but declined to give his full name. He pointed at two tear drop tattoos on his face and explained they were for two close friends who died on the rails, but he didn’t feel comfortable telling their stories.
Lisa “Twig” Hogan, 18, was raised in Arizona, but later moved to Atlanta with her mom. Before she met Trees she had planned to move back out west. A few months ago, while working at a shop in Little 5 Points, “this cute train kid walked in…” Insert Trees, Stumps and a change of plans.
Now known as Twig, Lisa spent many of her middle-school years in private school. Her mother still wasn’t comfortable with her traveling, much less riding freight trains. But Twig wasn’t a complete stranger to the tracks. She did “a two-month tour” with a friend a few years back, but never really learned the ropes.
Both traveled very different paths to reach their intersection in life, but shared a common need for freedom and a lust for travel.
The Department of Health and Human Services, The Administration for Children and Families, The Administration on Children, Youth and Families, is offering the Runaway and Homeless Youth Street Outreach Program. The goal is to assist children who fall victim to exploitation and abuse on the streets. The objective is to increase the safety, wellbeing and self-sufficiency of homeless youth. This is accomplished by building connections with them so organizations can help provide for the child’s immediate physical needs while helping improve behavioral and psychological health for them. The deadline is June 24, 2011.
If you were expecting Dickens, forget it. Homeless kids in Georgia do not have a special look. They’re hiding right in front of you. That’s the first thing we learned from Mary, who looks like any other teenager in Atlanta. Her hair is tied up with a pink ribbon on top of her head and several subtle piercings adorn her face and ears. Dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, she is quick to flash her big, bright smile. Mary is one of an unknown number of homeless young people living in Atlanta.
Mary’s experience is not very different from that of many homeless teens. After a stormy relationship with her mother, she was kicked out of her parents’ house on her 18th birthday three weeks ago.
“I didn’t get along with my mom, but my dad was okay. We got along,” she said.
Her best friend lives in Atlanta, so Mary made her way east, soon finding herself alone in a big city that was very different from her small-town home in Alabama.
No one knows how many young people are homeless. And so last Thursday, Mary joined a team of other kids from the youth shelter Covenant House as they drove through Atlanta looking for homeless kids. The team was part of the first ever Homeless Youth Count Project, a statewide initiative funded by the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.
The teams went to the places where homeless kids go—malls, libraries, parks—with surveys that will help to fill in the gaps in understanding who these kids are.
We rode with the Covenant House team, which asked that we not use real names or take pictures of any of the homeless young people we encountered, including those who were part of the survey team. To protect their privacy and their safety, we are using aliases.
Joining Mary on the survey team were three other young people. Tom, street-wise and wearing a basketball jersey, was smiling and cracking jokes.
“I’ve been going through this since I was 16,” he said. “But this is the first time I’ve been in a shelter, period.”
Larry, wearing a red hoodie, was serious and quiet. He said he had been at Covenant House six times.
“I got thrown out of the house for a fight,” he said.
Finally, there was Daisy, a dancer and theater actor who said she wanted to study journalism. Daisy moved to Atlanta from Brooklyn only 3 days earlier to escape a bad relationship.
“I wanted to go somewhere where no one knew me,” she said.
On Thursday morning the survey team convened in the Covenant House kitchen after breakfast. They sat around a large table still covered with a Christmas tablecloth and listened to instructions. The kids got clipboards with copies of the survey and began to familiarize themselves with the questions. They practiced interviewing each other and making sure they were asking all the questions on the two-sided survey. Competing questions collided across the table as the four young people practiced.
“Where did you sleep last night?”
“Do you have any children?”
“Are you in school?”
Soon, they were piling into Covenant House’s white 16-passenger van.
Atlanta is facing a serious challenge. Homelessness is often found at the intersection of high poverty rates, high dropout rates, and high unemployment and Atlanta is not doing well in any of these categories. According to research by Covenant House, one in four 18 to 24-year olds in Atlanta lives in poverty. Twenty-two percent never finished high school or got a GED and the unemployment rate for 20 to 24-year-olds tops 15 percent.
Todd Wilcher is the Director of Residential and Outreach Services at Covenant House in Atlanta. He said having a more accurate count of homeless young people will help agencies like Covenant House receive more funding to provide more services for kids.
Mr. Todd, as the Covenant House kids know him, was like a strict but fun uncle to these kids. He was quick to remind them to take off their hats when inside or pull their pants up. But he doesn’t miss an opportunity to teach them things they might not get somewhere else.
Today’s lesson: jazz music. After pulling the van out of the Covenant House parking lot, he tunes the radio to a jazz station.
“Riding through the city, listening to jazz—that’s how I roll,” Wilcher told the kids. “Jazz is the music of the city.”
“There’s no words,” Larry complained.
“Sometimes words get in the way,” Wilcher responded. “Jazz frees your mind.”
The long van negotiated the crowded streets, making wide swings around the tight corners. Wilcher held a piece of paper in his right hand with a list of locations. The first stop was a soup kitchen in a church basement but the survey team was running late. Finding parking for a van that large is no easy task in the city.
Wilcher, however, wasn’t concerned with the time.
“It’s alright,” he said as he eased the van into a spot near the church. “Our hearts are in the right place.”
The team didn’t find any young people in the soup kitchen. They weren’t surprised. Homeless kids aren’t usually found where homeless adults are, and with good reason. Young people face an increased risk of physical and sexual abuse when staying in adult homeless shelters, according to Covenant House.
The team had more success at their next stop, a downtown library. There, sitting at public computers surfing the Internet, were the first clear signs of Atlanta’s homeless youth problem. The team spread out—there were plenty of kids to talk to—and began approaching the young people they thought were homeless.
Most of the kids the survey team talked with were a lot like Mary. They didn’t stand out. They looked like normal teenagers. Sitting across from them in the mall food court or at the library, there was nothing to give away their status. But the survey team was adept at spotting them.
The Covenant House kids began by asking if their subjects were 24 or younger. If yes, the surveyor asked them where they had slept the night before. Sometimes they came right out and asked the kids if they were homeless. They always seemed to know whom to talk to and how. They spoke the language. It was no accident that teams of homeless youth were recruited for this job. With a gentle approach they were able to bond with other homeless kids.
They bowed their heads together in quiet conversation while they ran through the questions. Their body language spoke to the level of intimacy involved. They stood close together, turned partly toward each other as they spoke in hushed, private voices. Both the surveyor and subject often appeared ready to hug at any moment, as if it were the only way to express the emotions in their shared plight. There was an understanding between them.
On the street outside the library, they found more kids. In the mall down the street, even more. The survey team was on a roll, interviewing dozens of young people. The team worked late into the night, changing locations as the day flew by.
“Anecdotally, we received at least 500 surveys,” said project coordinator Pete Colbenson, who adds it’s too early to know the numbers. A statewide census of all homeless people done by shelters and programs is expected to provide further data.
A Kennesaw State University math professor will crunch the numbers and a report will be published in May by the Governor’s Office for Children and Families. For the first time, activists and administrators will have a picture of Georgia’s homeless youth.
Their success is a double-edged sword. By finding more kids in need of help they are in a better position to offer help. But every kid they find means is another young person living on the street alone and vulnerable, or couch-surfing with friends and acquaintances; another kid in danger of losing the way permanently.
Mary, three weeks in to her new reality away from her home and family, is still confident. She dropped out of college before coming to Atlanta but she doesn’t fear what the future holds.
“I had a scholarship before. I’ll get in again,” she said.