The National Coalition for the Homeless defines homeless youth as “individuals under the age of eighteen who lack parental, foster or institutional care.” Homeless youth can also be referred to as “unaccompanied” youth. Many teens are homeless along with their families who have fallen on hard times, but there are just as many, if not more, who are homeless on their own trying to make their way in the world without anyone looking out for their well-being.
by Melissa Chaiken | Section Editor
Homelessness among teens has become a rampant and widespread issue in our society. The statistics are staggering, and not just in large urban areas where you envision homeless people living “under the bridge”, loitering underground in the subway, or lying on the sidewalks huddling under newspapers trying to keep warm. Rob Scichili, Marketing and Communications Director of City House, an organization that works with North Texas kids who are at risk for abuse, neglect or homelessness, states, “Homeless, neglected and abused children used to be topics centered around ‘urban life and its issues.’ Today, nothing could be further from the truth. Suburban economic growth equals thousands of minimum wage jobs for those who can get to them. Many of these earners moved from the cities or poorer areas to work and live below poverty here in Collin County and surrounding areas. Conversely, work force reduction in white-collar positions resulted in job loss, foreclosures and financial commitment struggles, making it harder to maintain lifestyles and make ends meet. When hopelessness sets in, people often turn to abusive behavior that plays out through alcoholism, drug abuse, aggression, violence, sexual and physical abuse and in some cases, family abandonment.“
Teen homelessness is a huge problem right here the suburbs of North Texas: Frisco, Plano, Lewisville, Denton, etc., and teens who are homeless face unique issues. They are still only teens after all, and life as a teenager is complicated enough without having to worry about where you are going to sleep tonight or if you will have enough to eat.
For most homeless youth, finishing high school is the only way out of their plight. Fortunately, federal law requires public schools to make certain that homeless youth have access to education, transportation to and from school and even a hot breakfast and/or lunch. However, schools are not required to provide housing. Pursuant to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, school districts are required to have counselors, or liaisons, whose duties include identifying homeless youth, helping them stay in school and connecting them with agencies that can see that their basic needs are met. Identifying homeless teens can be difficult because many of these teens are ashamed of and embarrassed by their situation and want to attempt to handle things on their own as long as they can. It’s not unusual for a teen to be homeless for a significant period of time before a friend, friend’s parent, teacher, coach or counselor makes the discovery. A 2014 report from America’s Promise Alliance estimates that young people who experience homelessness are 87 percent more likely to stop going to school. In spite of the schools’ and social agencies’ best efforts to help these youth stay in school, homeless teens can face obstacles to staying in school because of legal guardianship requirements, residency requirements and lack of access to medical or education records. Consequently many homeless youth face severe challenges in supporting themselves financially and emotionally without a proper education.
Because of their young age, many of these teens have few legitimate opportunities to earn enough money to meet their basic needs. As a result many teens turn to “survival sex”, or exchanging sex for food, clothing or shelter. Covenant House New York (CHNY) is New York City’s largest provider of services for homeless youth ages 16 to 21. In 2013, CHNY conducted an extensive study on the closely intertwined issues of human trafficking and teen homelessness. CHNY states they have always known that traffickers and other exploiters seek out vulnerable youth to recruit and victimize. Yet, they say, young people do not arrive at the doors of their shelter stating, “Help, I have been trafficked.” Instead they say, “Help, I need food and a place to sleep.” Their study reports that the number one commodity traded in return for sexual activity was shelter. Over 48% of the participants in the study – almost half – say they did it because they did not have a place to stay. These youth explained how traffickers hang out in areas where homeless youth are known to gather and then tell them that the shelters are full and offer them a place to stay instead of sleeping on the streets. The homeless youth also reported that other commodities often traded for sexual activity include food, drugs, clothing, and money to support children or younger siblings. Many told of being kicked out of their homes, off of their friend’s couch or out of a shelter, and in a panicked state made the decision to find a “sugar daddy”, an ex-boyfriend with whom they had a history of abuse, or anyone who would let them stay in their home and off the street in exchange for sexual activity.
Other studies have shown that 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender (LGBT). While these LGBT homeless youth face many of the same risk factors as homeless youth that identify as heterosexual, such as the absence of caring adults in their lives, estrangement from family, and a lack of shelter and constructive opportunities, they are also burdened with discrimination and bullying. As stated before, the teen years are already rife with anxiety and stress under the best of circumstances without having the additional strain of not having an adult looking out for your welfare. Therefore, it is not surprising that homeless youth often suffer from greater risk of severe anxiety and depression, suicide, poor health and nutrition and low self-esteem.
The reasons for the increased homelessness in the youth population usually fall into three interrelated categories: family problems, economic problems and residential instability. Disruptive family conditions are the most common reason that youth leave home. These family dynamics can include physical, mental or sexual abuse, neglect, substance abuse or mental illness within the home, teen pregnancy or rejection because a teen is LGBT. Kim Hinkle, Executive Director of Journey to Dream, an organization that works with at risk youth in North Texas states, “The biggest misconception is that these are bad, troubled kids. A lot of times their families are in the nicest neighborhoods in the school district with lots of money. But they come from an abusive environment, and they have to leave that situation.”
There are also a number of cases where youth are asked to leave the home because the family is unable to provide for a teen’s specific mental health or disability needs, or the families simply can’t afford to care for the teen. Some youth may become homeless if their families experience a financial crisis and there is no affordable housing, limited employment opportunities, insufficient wages, no medical insurance or inadequate welfare benefits. Some teens become homeless with their families, but are later separated from them because of child welfare policies or arbitrary shelter rules.
Finally, many homeless youth have aged out of the foster care system. These teens are discharged from their residential or institutional placements because of their age, but they often have little or no income support and limited housing options and are therefore more likely to end up on the streets.
So, where do these homeless kids turn for help? Sadly, there is a severe shortage of options for them.
Samantha Batko, Director, Homelessness Research Institute, says, “If they are lucky, a homeless youth gets a shelter bed or sleeps on a friend or family member’s couch. If they are unlucky, they sleep on the streets, in cars, in abandoned buildings; they may ride public transit all night; or they may barter sex for a place to stay. The important point is that every night, homeless youth are turned away from shelter and housing programs because of a lack of capacity.”
Many homeless teens resort to couch surfing. Couch surfing is defined as situations where homeless youth are living in unstable and/or temporary living arrangements such as the couches or spare bedrooms of friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, or other family members. Couch surfing may seem like a safe alternative to living on the street. Staying with friends seems preferable to a shelter, but again, these teens are extremely vulnerable and are often forced to engage in unsafe or illegal activities such as prostitution, dealing drugs or theft as a way of keeping a place to stay, making money or just surviving.
Journey to Dream and City House are two North Texas organizations that are making strides in helping homeless youth in our community.
City House was founded in 1988 by two Plano school teachers, Nancy Boyd and Kay Goodman, who noticed one of their students living out of his locker, one living in his car, another living in a vacant building and still another bringing her clothes to school in a garbage bag. What began as a six-bed teen shelter serving Plano ISD homeless students has grown into a 48-bed multi-faceted organization serving North Texas youth who are at risk of abuse, neglect or homelessness. City House helps youth ages newborn to 21-years old through three primary programs: Emergency Shelter for children in Plano, Outpatient Counseling Services for individuals and families, and Transitional Living Programs in Plano and Frisco.
The Emergency Shelter, which is called My Friend’s House, is a 24–bed facility that provides round-the-clock care and services to children ages newborn to 17. City House works with Child Protective Services to take in kids who have been removed from their home as a result of abuse, abandonment, neglect or a dangerous environment. These youth can stay at the shelter for up to 90 days while City House staff work to get them back into the home or into foster care. My Friend’s House specializes in keeping siblings together since separating children from their siblings after removing them from the home only adds to their trauma; City House gives these children peace of mind by knowing where their siblings are and seeing them every day – a place where brothers and sisters can heal together. The shelter has its name so children staying there can avoid the embarrassment of saying they are living in a shelter. So, when asked, they can answer, “I live at My Friend’s House.”
The Emergency Shelter also has a program to address the immediate needs of runaway or homeless youth for an average stay of 21 – 30 days. The goal of City House is to increase youth safety, well-being and self-sufficiency, as well as to help these youth build permanent connections with caring and safe adults. Other services available to these youth are individual and family counseling, medical examination upon intake, individualized case management, academic assistance, transportation assistance to work or school, nutritional education, recreational activities, positive youth development and support, and life skills and therapeutic group classes.
City House also operates a Transitional Living Program (TLP) for homeless youth ages 18 – 21. The staff’s focus is to help them grow and learn to live independently. Residents may stay up to 18 months and residency is conditioned upon attending school or work. Additionally, the residents are required to attend life skills classes where they learn resources such as budgeting, searching for a job, learning how to do laundry and other household tasks, résumé building, and interviewing and applying for colleges. There are strict rules regarding alcohol and drug use, overnight guests and contributing to household chores. At the Youth Resource Centers, any youth or young adult may get similar assistance even if not a resident.
City House is an official “Safe Place” Organization, working in conjunction with local QuikTrip (QT) locations in Collin and Denton counties. A Safe Place Organization helps provide quick access to help and resources for youth who are runaways, abused, homeless, kicked out of the house or in any unsafe situation. Any troubled youth who show up at a local QT store in need of help will immediately be put in touch with City House.
City House will host its annual fundraiser gala on September 19 in Frisco. For more information, visit cityhouse.org
Journey to Dream | Kyle’s Place
Journey to Dream (JTD) was founded in 2004 by two moms, Kim Hinkle and Kari Rusco, whose vision was to support kids silently struggling with the isolation and chaos that addiction and abuse often bring. Since its inception, the organization has positively impacted more than 80,000 students through school assemblies, youth development and enrichment groups, and community outreach. All of JTD’s programs are aimed at empowering young people with the tools necessary to overcome adversity and achieve their goals and dreams. JTD is contracted with Lewisville Independent School District, one of the largest districts in North Texas, and has provided programs for many other school districts in the area.
The people at JTD make a difference in the lives of suffering teens in three ways: they embrace, equip and empower. One thing most teens have in common is the need to be accepted. Many have had their worlds turned upside down by divorce, abuse, addiction, death and homelessness. The teen years are difficult enough as young people are trying to figure out who they are, where they belong and who they can trust. JTD embraces these teens who are facing additional challenges and works to provide a safe place for hurting teens to develop a strong sense of self-worth and belonging.
JTD’S programs also work to equip teens with the tools they need to develop into self sufficient, productive and healthy adults. Many teens do not get the guidance they need to learn to cope with difficult emotions, to learn how to communicate with others in a healthy and respectful way, or how to resolve conflict and set necessary boundaries in life. Hinkle, who is also the Executive Director of JTD, says, “It’s about teaching them what a healthy relationship is and isn’t.”
Once teens are equipped with these essential life skills, they are empowered to use their own voice for positive change on their school campus or in their community. JTD encourages them to use their personal story of overcoming adversity to inspire others who are similarly struggling.
Hinkle relays that during the course of their work and interaction with students at various local high schools, they discovered the hidden epidemic of youth homelessness. Now, JTD is taking on its most challenging endeavor yet – Kyle’s Place. In 2012, JTD lost a student named Kyle in a devastating tragedy. Around this same time they were becoming more aware of the growing prevalence of teen homelessness. The vision of JTD is that it will be a home for hurting and homeless teens and will provide them with a safe place to sleep, healthy meals every day, basic necessities, help with school work, and safe adults that will love them back to life. Hinkle says, “Our priority will always be to reunite these teens with family when it’s possible, but when it’s not, to give them a strong support system that will help them succeed as adults.” JTD wants Kyle’s Place to embody the same love and compassion, the same huge hugs and smiles, and the same integrity that Kyle exemplified.
JTD will host their Dream Big Gala on November 7 in Lewisville. Funds raised at this event will be used to make the dream of Kyle’s Place a reality. For more information on the event, visit journeytodream.com.
WHY KYLE’S PLACE?
Because there are homeless teens without a safe place to sleep tonight. Because human traffickers are looking for them. Because instead of studying they’re worried about if they will have food to eat and a place to sleep.