Nick Mason works the room on a spring Saturday afternoon at the first art show displaying some of his paintings — lifelines on the road back to stability after nearly a year and a half of living as a homeless teenager.
Nineteen-year-old Mason smiles and chats with patrons and describes the creation of his artwork amid the other splashes of color on the walls: violets to reds, abstracts to realism. Four of the pieces are his, all made at his parents’ home in Olathe.
Sunlight floods the silent auction’s west-facing venue, a bar-restaurant called Snow & Co. in downtown Kansas City. About 30 patrons, mostly 20- and 30-somethings, browse the art and sip drinks while an eclectic mix of music fills the room.
Mason sports black slacks, gray dress shirt, light pink paisley tie, a smile and nearly constant motion. Anxiety is his nearly constant companion.
“Yeah, I’m nervous,” he says. “But it’s for a good cause, so I forced myself out here.”
The auction is a fundraiser for Helping and Preparing Positive Youths (HAPPY), a local organization whose mission is to help young people with special needs by guiding them into participation in their communities. Mason volunteers for HAPPY, and the work is helping him move toward the same state of mind.
Carry Hafley, who has known Nick since he was 8 years old, attended Mason’s art show. She has witnessed his ups and downs and is thrilled to see how far he has come.
“Sometimes I thought he might not make it in life. I’m so proud of him today. It’s amazing,” Hafley said.
By 6 p.m. the crowd dwindles. The turnout underwhelms. Circumstances prevented much advance publicity.
Mason sells none of his artwork in the show.
“It was a good experience to go through,” he says. “As long as I have my art, I’ll be OK.”
Approaching the point of feeling OK involved a circuitous, six-state homeless journey for Mason, accompanied by frequent bouts of depression along with the dogged sense of anxiety, sometimes strong urges toward suicide and brief stints in psychiatric hospitals that resulted from them.
He was diagnosed with severe depression and started taking medication for it at age 13. Early in 2013, he was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder involving sexual abuse including rape, threats of violence and actual violence and bullying — always by someone outside his family, he said.
He’s had a lot of practice learning to live with those problems, and with another fundamental, self-defining one: He was born a girl and named Lacey. He came out as gay when he was 13 and has defined himself as transgendered since he was 16.
Mason was what officials call an “unaccompanied homeless youth” — out on his own. He wasn’t sleeping on the streets, but he lived without a home. He had slipped into the ranks of the “hidden homeless.”
Statistics on homeless youths — especially those who don’t live with their families — can be as elusive as 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.
Johnson County’s six public school districts keep track of how many homeless children they educate, whether unaccompanied or with their families. Shawnee Mission counted 441 this school year, down from 445 in 2012-2013 but up from 292 the year before. Olathe counted 385 homeless students, edging down from 427 and 509 students the previous two years.
Statewide, the overall numbers of homeless students — unaccompanied and with family — are rising, but the state does not keep counts by county, said Tate Toedman, state coordinator for the education of homeless children and youths.
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.
Nationwide in 2013, HUD counted 610,042 homeless people, 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 in 2013 were 24 or younger.
HUD hadn’t routinely kept statistics on unaccompanied youths but began doing so in 2013, 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 any place 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,” Carson said.
Youths on their own, not homeless with a family member, in Johnson County and across the nation become homeless for a number of reasons, officials with several local social-services agencies said.
Some age out of foster care. Some leave home because of abuse — verbal, physical or sexual. 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 children have had enough.
Among the fast-growing categories of homeless people in Missouri, for example, is teens aging out of foster care and unaccompanied youths, said Evie Craig, executive director of ReStart Inc., a Kansas City agency that serves homeless people who come to it from both sides of the state line. “You just don’t have the image that they would be homeless,” Craig said. “They’re hard to count because they couch surf.
“These kids are at enormous risk.”
A 24-year-old Shawnee man, who preferred to remain anonymous, was a member of the hidden homeless for four years.
He became homeless in November 2009 at the age of 19. He was living with his parents and younger brother in southern Overland Park and working with his mother at a bar and café she owned. One day they got into an argument.
He hit her in her face, “which was a mistake,” he said.
“You should never do that,” he said. “It was pretty bad.”
His mother told him to move out immediately. The day he left, he went to Johnson County Community College and looked online for homeless services in Overland Park. He found Jason Stary, street outreach supervisor for Olathe-based KidsTLC. Stary picked him up and drove him to City Union Mission in downtown Kansas City.
He didn’t want to stay there.
“I’d been like upper-middle-class in Overland Park since I was 11,” he said. “My parents both had really nice jobs. We (his brother and he) didn’t want for anything. Hell, we were spoiled.”
And so he lived the life of the hidden homeless.
He couch surfed at a friend’s mother’s house in Overland Park for four to six months. His next stop was a 24-hour grocery store in Overland Park. It had a café, and he slept each night in a booth there for six months.
“I would just bunk up in the corner, and that was that,” he said. “Nobody said anything, except for night-shift workers who would wake me up every now and then, and sometimes a manager, around 7 a.m.”
Stary brought him food weekly at a library the whole time he stayed at the grocery store, he said.
Most days, he would leave the store around 5:30 a.m. and walk about three miles with a backpack to the library and spend all day there. He rarely bathed or washed his clothes during the six months he slept at the store.
“I was so carefree I didn’t even care,” he said. “It didn’t matter at all. I would live in my head.”
He spent his days surfing the Internet at the library.
“Eventually, I decided I had to do something for myself.”
At Stary’s suggestion, he went to Job Corps in Manhattan, Kan., where he lived in a Job Corps housing complex there for the federal program’s participants. He had to document his comings and goings and get prior approval to leave the complex. He was in contact with his mother infrequently while he was there.
“My mom has been through a lot … because of me,” the man said.
He completed a Job Corps plumbing course in November 2010, then went to live with his brother and father, who by this time was separated from his mother.
But the house fell into foreclosure, and his father and brother moved on. A few months later, he went home one day in June 2011 and found the house locked because of the foreclosure proceedings.
He returned to the same grocery store and stayed there another couple of months.
His life didn’t get any more stable from there. He spent a month in jail in Olathe for stealing out of unlocked cars and entered a residential center but left without completing his diversion program.
His stops and starts were many: the grocery store twice again, for a month or two each time, where he was discovered the second time by a manager and told to leave; City Union Mission for a night; Faith Ministries in downtown Kansas City and ReStart for brief stays; and St. Joseph, Wichita, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, with occasional stays in homeless shelters, sometimes for several months.
After a marijuana arrest in Denver, he was extradited to Kansas since he had failed to finish his diversion program. After his mother bailed him out of jail, he moved in with his brother in November 2013. The court approved his completion of the diversion program.
He lives with his brother still, and he works two part-time jobs, both in customer service.
His turnaround involved no epiphany.
“It was just an opportunity, and I decided, OK, I’m ready to take it now,” he said. “Before that, I’d had plenty of opportunities, but I didn’t take them.”
His focus now is on the basics, he said: work, and “trying to be all the things that I should’ve been in my life, in my mind.”
“I should’ve been a brother,” he said. “I should’ve been a son. The importance of people is abundantly clear to me now, especially people who will support me. People who will support you is rare enough in and of itself. When you are handed two or three of these people right out of the gate, wouldn’t it be just the stupidest thing in the world to just let it go?”
In the Kansas City area and other places across the country, social service agencies have been changing their approach to dealing with the homeless, young people included, several local agencies said. They’re focusing less on overnight shelters and more on long-term solutions.
The watchwords say it all: “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.
Homeless youths and young adults in Johnson County can be hard to reach in order to help them move forward, said Josh Henges, a former street outreach worker for KidsTLC. “Inreach” is a more accurate term for services provided to them, Henges said. That means finding the homeless youths and young adults and bringing them to the services.
That’s made harder because Johnson County is less likely to have homeless people living on the streets than most other parts of the metropolitan area. The county’s homeless people are more likely to couch surf, Carson said. And while the county does have unaccompanied homeless youths, the majority of its homeless youths are with their families, she said.
KidsTLC focuses on getting Johnson County homeless youths into safe housing; preventing sexual abuse and exploitation of the youths; and helping youths who have experienced this kind of abuse.
KidsTLC has no housing facilities, but it refers youths to Synergy Services Inc. in the Northland; ReStart; Hillcrest Transitional Housing in Kansas City, Kan.; and Steppingstone in Kansas City, Stary said.
Forty percent of the calls KidsTLC gets are from youths in Johnson County, he said.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families, which oversees the state’s foster care system, offers programs to help foster children who are aging out of the system, so they don’t become a homeless statistic.
The agency uses the National Youths in Transition Database, which measures and tracks services to youths, said Jaymee Metzenthin, program manager for the agency’s independent living program.
The database helps measure success in preparing youths for the transition from foster care to adult living by reporting on independent living services for those who are 15 to 25, and surveying youths at ages 17, 19 and 21.
The agency also uses the Youths Advisory Council, which comprises a group of people ages 16 to 21 who are or were in foster care who offer the state officials ideas on how to help foster children transition out of the system, Metzenthin said.
Despite the programs, many experts on youth homelessness say some youths who’ve been released from Johnson County’s foster care and juvenile justice systems end up homeless.
“When a young person reaches age 18 and asks to be released from the program, we can offer them services, but it’s their choice,” Mentzenthin said. “We have no data on youths who age out of the system and end up homeless.”
She cited HUD’s 2013 homelessness report: 18 percent of Johnson County’s homeless adults said they had been in foster care.
The Johnson County Department of Corrections also has procedures in place to help juvenile offenders transition out of the correctional system. The department finds residential living, foster homes and independent living arrangements for the juveniles, said Becky Seidler, a senior case manager for the department.
“When a request is made of the court to release a juvenile, we do a home visit prior to the release and check on warrants,” Seidler said. “They go with their parents.”
If a parent is unavailable, the department works with other relatives and does background checks on them, she said. If no relative is available for the juvenile to live with, the department typically places them in independent-living housing and helps them find jobs and get back in school. While they’re in state custody, the state pays for the services but doesn’t follow up with the juveniles after they leave the system, she said.
All six Johnson County public school districts provide a variety of services to homeless students. The Shawnee Mission district’s services include transportation to and from school and free breakfast, and it waives other fees, such as those for immunizations and sports participation, said Alicia Dean, the district’s homeless liaison and federal program coordinator.
The district also provides a list of resources to parents and collaborates with other districts and organizations to help get information to parents about services for homeless youths.
“We don’t put roadblocks in students’ way,” said Ed Streich, chief academic officer for the district.
Olathe East High School also tries to keep the road open for homeless and poverty-stricken students of many different backgrounds, in part through its Clothes Closet program and Back to School Bash, which provides backpacks, school supplies, haircuts, shoes and other necessities.
“The face of homelessness in our school district is varied,” said Alison Banikowski, the Olathe district’s deputy superintendent. “Some lost their home in a fire. Some live in motels. Some are part of families that doubled or tripled up with other families. They include all races and ethnicities. I think we have to broaden our view of homelessness.”
Whether in or out of any system designed to help the homeless, their urgent needs can’t be ignored.
The Kansas City-based, all-volunteer Uplift Organization Inc. takes hot food and other necessities in three vans to homeless people in the streets on both sides of the state line 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.”
KidsTLC made an effort to fight youth homelessness when it hosted an event on April 11 at its Olathe offices to educate Kansas City-area teens about youth homelessness locally and what they can do to help.
About 150 area students up to age 18 showed up and packaged nearly 10,000 meals for Harvesters — The Community Food Network, which will distribute them to local homeless people. Seven sponsors — organizations and companies — paid for the meals.
The event’s purpose was “to engage youngsters in justice issues in their world,” said Cheryl Reinhardt, development director for Something to Eat, a program of a Christian-based ministry in Kansas City, Kan., called Youthfront, which focuses on young people.
“It’s easy to throw money at a problem, but it’s another thing to have them see the food,” Reinhardt said.
The goal had been to pack 15,000 meals, and KidsTLC packaged the rest of them later.
The students also packed backpacks with clothing and hygiene items to be distributed to KidsTLC’s SOS program. It facilitates community-based outreach and case-management services to homeless youths ages 12 to 21 who are from Johnson, Wyandotte, Miami and Franklin counties in Kansas, and Jackson County in Missouri. The program primarily serves homeless youths in Johnson County.
In addition, the students collaboratively created an interactive art piece, listened to a local former homeless teenager speak about his homeless experience and sat in on sessions designed to educate them about homelessness.
KidsTLC chaplain James Amos spoke to the students about the value of increasing their awareness of the youth homelessness problem.
“A lot of times, when we think about homelessness and poverty, we think ‘them,’” Amos said. “We don’t think about ‘us.’ There is no ‘they.’ There are just different facets of ‘us.’”
Dylan Jones, a junior at Olathe North High School, said he attended the event to help out with the community.
“Being here and helping them get up on their feet is important,” Jones said.
Dustin Miller, an 18-year-old junior at Spring Hill High School, spoke to about 30 teens at the event about his experience with homelessness and his success in getting back on his feet.
“I know you guys walk around at school, and see kids, but you don’t know what some of them are going through,” Miller said. “Most of the time, I didn’t get along with my parents. Keep your friends close, because sometimes that’s all you have. If your friends aren’t there, God’s always there for you.”
Nick Mason first became homeless in October 2012, just before he turned 18. He and his parents had argued over his messy room, he said.
“I just felt, I’m 18 almost and I can do whatever I want,” he said. “I can just move out.”
So he did. He had $100 in his pocket when he boarded a Greyhound bus headed for Asheville, N.C., to stay with a relative. He was a high school senior at the time in Project S.O.A.R., an alternative-education program that’s part of the Olathe public schools system. He finished high school by taking his remaining classes online in December 2012.
Life at the relative’s house “wasn’t what I expected,” he said. He bounced around on a journey that took him back to Kansas several times — including for brief stays with his parents in Olathe and his sister in Lawrence, and a few days in a Manhattan homeless shelter — and to Missouri, Texas and Pennsylvania, mostly to stay with friends he’d met online.
“I had social problems meeting people face to face,” Mason said. “Online was easier.”
His mother sent him money at times to get back to Olathe, and at other times drove to get him and brought him back to her house. Friends also gave or loaned him money while he was homeless.
While in Pennsylvania in January of this year, Mason found himself taking stock of his journey and where it had gotten him. He decided he didn’t want to do what he’d been doing anymore.
“I realized that whenever things aren’t going too well I panic and just make an escape,” he said. “I don’t think through everything.”
Mason returned to his parents’ house in Olathe in January and lived there until early May, when he moved to Manhattan to live with a friend and work as a nanny to her four children.
But that lasted only a few weeks, mainly because his friend was having financial problems, he said.
So Mason decided to go to the Lawrence Community Shelter last week. Officials there are working to get him into long-term housing.
“I just got really down,” he said. “I couldn’t stay out there. I was too far away from all the resources.”
His parents decided not to let him return to their home.
“They agreed with me that I’d be better off in Lawrence,” he said. “I’m fine. I know things are going to start working out.”
A big part of that ongoing process of putting his life back together is his desire to legally change his name, start testosterone treatments and eventually have sex-change surgery. He sees these as natural next steps in his effort to authentically be himself.
“I’m taking my mental health seriously,” Mason said.
With medication and other steps toward maintaining his mental health, his relationship with his mother has improved, he said.
Mason’s mother, Susan Mason, said she recognized that Mason had been “definitely making some progress as far as realizing the importance of following rules to have a roof over your head.”
“She’s also realizing how hard it is to make it without the education, without having a good career,” Susan Mason said. “I think she’s also realizing that it takes a lot more income to be able to provide for herself, and that living on her own may not be an option right now.”
Susan Mason refers to Nick as the daughter she gave birth to. His sexual identity “is tough for me as her mom,” she said.
Nick is thinking of going on to college, someday writing a book about his experiences as a transgender person and becoming an inspirational speaker to help young people face their own troubles.
And he has advice for teens who might be heading down the path he took.
“I know life may be hard, staying with your parents. … I feel if you’re able to suck it up, do what your parents say, just do it, because it’s going to be so much easier.”
Lately, he’s been feeling confident about his future.
“Life is going to be good from now on.”
In the schools
Officials with Johnson County’s six public districts gave numbers of homeless youths from the start of the 2013-2014 school year through late April. These numbers compare with numbers of homeless students reported by the Kansas State Department of Education for the prior two full school years, 2012-2013 and 2011-2012:
Blue Valley: 91, up from 57 the prior year and 52 the year before that.
De Soto: 28, down from 56 and 60.
Gardner Edgerton: 104, down from 109 and 199.
Olathe: 385, down from 427 and 509.
Shawnee Mission: 441, down from 445 but up from 292.
Spring Hill: About 40, up from 30 but down from 49.