816 North

January 21, 2014

Many teens have no place to call home, and their number is rising

Statistics on homeless youths are elusive, much like the youths themselves. But the consensus is that the problem is far more widespread than many people realize. Melissa Douglas, homeless liaison for Kansas City Public Schools, said that among the 1,315 homeless students in the district in 2012-2013, a total of 202, or 15 percent, were “unaccompanied,” or out on their own.

Seventeen-year-old Diamond Smallwood woke up every day for a month knowing he’d be holed up in a central Kansas City house with several friends but no electricity, no gas and no water.

And no plan for his future.

Smallwood rarely left the house except to buy snacks — not actual food, he says — with the little money friends had given him, and to use the restroom at a nearby convenience store. Most days, he admits, he and his housemates stayed inside, doing little that was useful.

The house was owned by a woman who was in the hospital and had allowed them to stay there. Smallwood landed there after running away from home in August 2012.

Hailey Cox called herself a “couch hopper.”

When her mother moved from their home in Parkville to Oklahoma in June, 17-year-old Cox — seven months pregnant — decided to stay behind, at the group home where she’d been living for six months because of truancy.

But when officials at the group home learned she was pregnant, by policy they wouldn’t let her remain there.

Cox tried to transfer to another school but would have had to complete two extra years there because of credits that wouldn’t transfer. She had a 3.7 grade point average in her junior year, she said, but chose to pursue a GED.

Then she spent a month during the summer staying with friends, sleeping on their couches or in their basements for short stretches, and then moving on to somebody else’s house to do the same.

Neither Smallwood nor Cox were sleeping on the streets, but both lived without a home.

While their peers finished high school or packed for college, the teenagers slipped into the ranks of the “hidden homeless.”

During that time, Cox continued singing with a local band called AY-MusiK. She plays several musical instruments.

Many days, a band member would pick her up from wherever she had stayed, drive her to performances on the Country Club Plaza and then take her home with them so she had someplace to sleep for the night.

“You’d never know I was homeless unless I told you,” she said.

Statistics on homeless youth — especially those who don’t live with their families — are elusive, much like the youths themselves. But the consensus among those who help them is that the problem is far more widespread than many people realize and less responsive to economic conditions because family dysfunction so often comes into play.

Melissa Douglas, homeless liaison for Kansas City Public Schools, said that among the 1,315 homeless students in the district in 2012-2013, a total of 202, or 15 percent, were “unaccompanied,” or out on their own.

That was a nearly threefold increase from 74 unaccompanied homeless youths the previous school year.

In Missouri, 26,525 students were homeless in the 2012-2013 school year, up 8 percent from 24,465 the prior year and up nearly 3 1/2 times from 7,695 in 1996. The state doesn’t track unaccompanied youth.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issues an annual report on homelessness, based on counts made on a single January night in more than 3,000 cities and counties.

Last year, the department counted 610,042 homeless people nationwide, down 6.1 percent from 649,917 in 2010.

Of last year’s total, 6,197, or 1 percent, were younger than 18 and unaccompanied, and 40,727, or almost 7 percent, were 18 to 24 and unaccompanied.

Overall, 33 percent of homeless people were 24 or younger.

HUD hadn’t routinely kept statistics on unaccompanied youth but began doing so last year, spokesman Brian Sullivan said.

“One problem with the big HUD point-in-time reports is that it uses the term ‘literally homeless,’ meaning out on the streets, living in a car living anyplace not meant for human habitation,” said

Valorie Carson, community planning director at United Community Services of Johnson County.

“Couch-surfers don’t fit this definition, but they constitute the vast majority — more than 85 percent — of young homeless, unaccompanied and with families.”

Unaccompanied youth become homeless for a number of reasons.

Some age out of foster care. Some leave home because of abuse — verbal, physical or sexual — within the family.

Others are kicked out when they come of age because their parents can’t afford to keep them. And those with special needs or sexual identity issues may leave because of conflicts with their parents.

Sometimes the parents themselves have drifted in and out of homelessness, and their kids have had enough.

“One of the fastest-growing categories of homeless in Missouri is kids aging out of foster care and youth on their own,” said Evie Craig, executive director at ReStart Inc., a Kansas City agency that serves the homeless. “You just don’t have the image that they would be homeless. They’re hard to count because they couch surf.

“These kids are at enormous risk.”

Before Smallwood ran away, he had stopped attending high school in the Kansas City school district.

After he left home, Smallwood said, the Missouri Children’s Division intervened. He ended up at Hope City, an inner-city ministry, affiliated with the International House of Prayer, that assists homeless youths.

He’s been there roughly 15 months. From a house with no utilities, he now lives in a house on the same block where the main Hope City building sits on East 24th Street.

The transition was rocky but eventually smoothed out.

“I spent every day for 13 months sitting reading the Bible and stuff,” he said. “It took a lot for me to do it because of the influence of all the kids coming in here every day from the streets and wanting me to go back out there. But it’s been a lot better here than I expected it to be.”

Now Smallwood leads prayer meetings and works as a sound technician for Hope City’s prayer room, which could lead to a career someday.

He enrolled at a Kansas City charter school but left shortly before Christmas. The environment, he said, was tempting him to return to behaviors he wanted to leave behind.

“Diamond is doing really well in his life...,” Hope City director Ray Stribling said. “He’s going to pursue his GED. He’s been pursuing (a) life-skills class. He’s also working an internship to run the media. IHOP had a conference at Bartle Hall, and he helped do the sound there.

“I think emotionally he’s gotten some healing. Call it what you want, but in some areas of his life he was abandoned. This is a Christian-based program, so he’s being grounded in the ways of God. I think he’s seeing that there’s a different lifestyle. When he turns 18, he’ll have some different options: a job or the military, maybe.”

Cox had never given much thought to homeless people before she became one. Then images came to mind of people on the street holding up signs to get money, wearing ragged clothes and sleeping under bridges.

So, after staying with friends for a month, she decided she needed to find a home.

She found Synergy Services Inc. in the Northland on a Google search, and in July joined its new transitional living program for teenagers who are pregnant or have children. She gave birth to a son, Casper, in September.

The program lasts 18 months and includes an apartment and help setting educational goals, budgeting, opening bank accounts, writing resumes and other life skills.

The program was difficult at first.

“I missed my siblings,” she said. “I was sitting alone in my apartment with Casper.”

Her mentors see a lot of positives in Cox.

“She’s been a fighter since she came into the program,” said Sarah Pierce-Burns, Synergy’s youth campus case manager. “She’s one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. She’s also very compassionate. She’s a helper. I know she struggles, but she’s good at always choosing to have hope.”

Learning to live with being stigmatized for having been homeless can be a useful life skill to develop, but so far, Cox has experienced none of that.

“What hurt me was when people told me I couldn’t have the baby and do music,” she said. “It’s not one or the other.”

Cox is doing both. Casper’s father is involved with caring for their child. Her band recently appeared on MTV and will start a college tour in February.

Casper will go along. For the tour, Cox plans to hire a nanny to care for Casper when she can’t or will rely on her mother, who has offered to come along and babysit.

Today, Cox looks at homelessness through a new lens.

“Seeing the people in the Synergy program — beautiful girls, kids well taken care of — if I saw them walking around you’d never know they were homeless. Now, I wonder if people have a place to go.”

You can’t go home again, Thomas Wolfe wrote.

But most people need a home. Lacking one can be devastating. Some say raising awareness of the problem is crucial to fighting it.

In the spirit of empathizing with homeless youth, about 100 students at the Metropolitan Community College’s Blue River campus took part in an event called One Homeless Day in early November.

The event in Independence was a partnership of the school and Synergy Services. The goal was to raise awareness and let the students experience life in some measure as homeless people do.

On the day of the event, students proceeded with some aspects of their usual lives — attended classes, studied — but denied themselves the resources they usually enjoyed. The college’s faculty and staff served food at an outdoor soup kitchen.

“We’re hoping other students will see that their peers are going through this and build empathy,” said Brandy Harrington, Synergy Services director of community resources.

Awareness can help alleviate the homelessness problem because people often stereotype the homeless, said Cynthia Heddlesten, a sociology instructor at MCC-Blue River.

“However, the average homeless person is a child or young adult,” she said. “What we are talking about are students who are sleeping in shelters, on couches and even in the streets.

“We feel it is important to raise awareness around this issue to help not only begin to break down the stereotypes but to build bridges that will ultimately aid these young people.”

The students who took part in the event not only built empathy, but also built homes out of cardboard boxes, held up signs and wrote in journals.

“They don’t understand the social inequality sometimes,” Heddleston said.

MCC student Constance Wright spent five years on the downside of that inequality. Wright is 30 years old and has four children. She stayed in shelters and couch-surfed at friends’ houses during those years.

Finally, she qualified for government-subsidized housing in March.

Student Amber Honeycutt is 22. She took part in the event “mostly to raise awareness,” she said. Honeycutt has never worried about where she’ll sleep, but she’s known people who have.

Gwen Davison, 44, has come closer to homelessness than most of her younger classmates.

“To me, the homeless really touch my heart,” Davison said. “I’ve been close to it, in 2007 and 2008. This is a blessing, a grateful experience. I think I have the ability to help others.”

In Kansas City and other places across the country, social service agencies have been changing their approach to dealing with the homeless, young people included.

In general, they’re focusing less on overnight shelters and more on long-term solutions, with the watchwords “housing first.”

The idea is to get people into stable housing first and then offer services, like schooling and training in job-hunting skills, so they can move forward.

ReStart offers an emergency shelter for runaway and homeless youths ages 12 to 18; a transitional program for those ages 18 to 22 in which the organization places young people in their own apartments for as long as 21 months; and rapid rehousing in which ReStart pays all or part of the rent for those ages 18 to 24.

Some agencies, such as Hope City, offer training for youth with addictions.

Others, including Synergy Services and Mother’s Refuge in Independence, provide housing for women who are pregnant or have young children.

Mother’s Refuge focuses on women 21 and younger. Participants must continue their education, and the agency provides courses on parenting, money management, resume-writing and job hunting, executive director Robert Zornes said.

It’s challenging work.

Homelessness among young people is increasing, and “the systemic issues aren’t changing,” said Vickie Riddle, executive director of the Homeless Services Coalition of Greater Kansas City.

“The economic recovery hasn’t come down to the homeless,” Riddle said. “Youth are doubly affected because they rely on their parents.”

Urgent needs, of course, cannot be ignored.

The all-volunteer Uplift Organization Inc. takes hot food and other necessities in three vans to homeless people in the streets three nights a week.

On one bitterly cold night, one van traveled a route starting in downtown Kansas City and fed a few dozen homeless people in about four hours.

Among them was 19-year-old DeWayne. He said he’d been homeless for six months after moving to Kansas City from Houston.

“It’s not safe out here,” he said. “I’ve had guys who were drunk pulling knives on me and stealing from me. Not everybody is homeless by choice.”

Uplift President Kathy Dean said the organization serves people “below the bottom rung of the ladder.”

“We’re down in the muck and the mire,” she said. “We’re trying to keep these people alive.”

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