Not long ago, Mandi Lewis lived out of two white laundry baskets.
When the Southeast High School senior was kicked out of an abusive home at 16, she fit what she could into those baskets — a few mementos, clothes and a prized Justin Bieber T-shirt her late grandmother had designed for her years ago. The teen went from shelter to shelter or slept at homes of her mom’s friends, never staying long enough to unpack.
On Saturday, as throngs of people walked to and from the Plaza Art Fair, a confident Lewis stood at the corner of JC Nichols Parkway and 47th Street and approached strangers to tell them about homeless youth. She explained how a growing number of young people have no home of their own and are forced to surf from couch to couch just to have a place to sleep at night.
“Here’s some information,” Lewis, 18, told a man who stopped long enough to listen and get some literature. “It’s happening to more young people than people realize.”
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For several hours, Lewis and several other young people stood at the corner Saturday afternoon, with a puffy old brown- and green- striped couch as their backdrop. The event, titled Couches Don’t Count, was sponsored by Youth 4 Change in Kansas City.
Camped out near the popular art fair, young people hoped to reach hundreds of people throughout the day.
“A lot of people don’t think of staying at a friend’s house as being homeless,” said Rita Carr, a youth program manager with reStart, one of the organizations that helps young people find shelter and transitional housing. “But it absolutely is.”
In a recent study by the federal government of four Midwestern states — including Missouri and Kansas — researchers discovered that there was a 55 percent increase in the number of people 24 and younger who were living on the streets.
For Kaiden Colby, 18, Synergy Services provided guidance and shelter when he needed it. Raised by his grandparents since he was 3, Colby was born a girl and named Raelena.
When his grandparents refused to accept him being transgender, he said he had to leave the only home he’s known. He’s thankful he landed at Synergy’s transitional living program and didn’t have to couch surf and drive around looking for a place to sleep like friends have.
“What people don’t realize is young people have to do unwanted things to be able to sleep on that couch,” Colby said. “People don’t recognize homelessness as much as they should.”
Because of that, he stood next to Lewis and called out to people asking them if they wanted to learn.
When Lewis got done Saturday, she had a home to go to. For the past five months, she’s lived in transitional housing for youth at reStart.
At her small, dorm-style apartment, Lewis has unloaded her white laundry baskets and put her clothes in drawers. The only time those baskets are full these days is when she doesn’t feel like folding her laundry just yet.
The place feels like home, with a refrigerator and microwave and TV of her own. She’s even hung a few things up.
Special among the things tacked on the wall is that blue and purple Justin Bieber T-shirt her grandmother gave her for her 11th birthday.
After high school Lewis hopes to go to Johnson County Community College and study in the culinary program. In the future she’d like to work toward opening her own restaurant and serve homemade comfort food and allow artists to test their singing talents.
And never again be forced to find a couch to sleep on for the night.