Community provides refuge for homeless, hungry youth

Darius Bryant’s telling a story. His story.

“Some days I didn’t know where food was going to come from. And if I couldn’t eat one day, I told myself I would tomorrow.”

He goes on: “I sometimes didn’t have a place to stay. My friends, they had my back. They’d let me stay. Sometimes though, you burn out your welcome. And then you’d be just Darius on the street with nothing.”

At just 18 years old — he’ll be 19 in January — Bryant knows what it’s like to be hungry, to walk a couple of miles just to get a meal at a soup kitchen or church. As a middle schooler, he’d stock shelves at a corner store for bus money to school. At the start of high school, he owned just two pairs of jeans and three shirts.

And for too long, he says, he never worried about what his future would be like, because he figured he wouldn’t have much of one.

Schoolteachers and advocates who fight against hunger and homelessness say they’re seeing more young people like Bryant. Because of tougher home lives, with parents out of a job or struggling to get by, it’s not a given that they’ll have the food and shelter and enough clothes that so many take for granted.

They’re forced to grow up too fast and often not to their full potential, making decisions about food and money that adults twice their age are supposed to shoulder. And often, it’s the community that provides the refuge.

Starting next month, The Star will again partner with Harvesters in a virtual food drive to help hungry kids in Kansas City. In the past two years, the partnership has raised more than $500,000 for Harvesters’ BackSnack program, which provides weekend food for thousands of kids during the school year. Harvesters also helps stock food pantries across the area where needy families go for assistance.

One goal, as in other food drives, is to educate the public on what some families and their children face every day.

“When you provide food to a child, you are providing much more than a simple meal,” said Karen Haren, president and CEO of Harvesters. “Your gift is an investment in that child’s health, ability to do well in school and grow into someone who contributes to our community.”

Advocates know that help is often available for young people. The struggle is connecting those in need with the assistance.

“There are a lot of the kids in similar situations as Darius,” said Kerry Wrenick, the liaison for homeless children with the Kansas City, Kan., School District who has worked with Bryant and other students who don’t have permanent or stable housing. “And all you need to say is ‘I need somebody to help me.’ ”

Bryant eventually did. That decision, he says, saved him.

Because of people in this community, especially Wrenick and two Lutheran associate pastors and their families — people who focused on his future when he wasn’t so sure — Bryant says he can finally think about where he’s headed next. Even dream a little.

Most of Bryant’s middle school years were golden. His mom married a good guy, someone who provided for the family, with food in the cupboards and a place to live.

“My stepdad, he told us, ‘You don’t have to worry about anything. I’ll provide everything for you.’ ”

Bryant’s signature look is a smile. It lights up his whole face, illuminates his personality.

When he talks about his stepdad and those years as an adolescent, that smile grows even a little wider. Everything with him and the whole family was good, Bryant says.

Then, during his eighth-grade year, his stepdad died of lung cancer. That’s when it felt like his family fell apart.

His mother struggled with jobs and little money came in. At some point, someone stole her identity.

They’d get an apartment and then, a couple of months later, they’d get evicted.

“When you’re kicked out, sometimes you can’t take anything with you,” Bryant says. “You lose everything. That was hard.”

Because his mom was trying to piece her life back together, he says, he and his two brothers often had to work things out for themselves.

His freshman year, he went out for the football team. The sport, at that point, was his biggest passion. In middle school, “I got down,” he says. In one game, he scored five touchdowns. That first year of high school, he made varsity.

But just before the first game, his family had to move again. This time they went to a shelter in North Kansas City, too far from his KCK high school. He wouldn’t be playing football.

He wanted to play basketball but came up $25 short of the $45 fee.

After moving with a girlfriend and her family out of a state his sophomore year, he soon came back to Kansas City and his mom. She tried again. With money from a settlement related to the identity theft, the family got into a new apartment.

Life was looking good. Because Bryant didn’t want to lose that again, he wrote a contract for her to sign. He remembers roughly what it stated:

“I will not lose this place. I promise to keep this place. We’re going to be safe.”

For six months, life went back to normal. A place to live. Food on the table. The family together.

Then they had to leave again. No money for rent. Again, he lost everything.

Bryant realized this time he was really on his own.

At some point in his senior year at J.C. Harmon High School in Kansas City, Kan., he realized that he was close to graduating.

“I was like, ‘I’m almost there,’ ” he says. “I didn’t think I’d ever be at that point.”

Friends encouraged him. Wrenick helped guide him.

“Everybody talks about resiliency,” she said. “But there’s something in Darius, a drive. That no matter what he experienced, he was going to make it.”

Not only did he graduate, but he lined up enough financial aid to go to a local college.

But after working out of town for a while this summer, he came back and had to leave where he was staying. He was told on a Thursday he’d have to find a new place by Monday.

He called Wrenick and left a message. She called the next day, ready to ask him about college, about his plans.

Bryant told her he didn’t have a place to live and was thinking about heading back out of state for temporary work. College might have to wait.

Wrenick knew how far he’d come. He couldn’t turn back.

“I got this pastor,” she told him. “He says you could stay with him. What do you think about that?”

Most people know Scott Eberlein as Pastor Scott.

He’s a 29-year-old husband and father of one who grew up in the Detroit area. He was raised in the Lutheran church, went to Michigan State and graduated with a business degree. Still, he felt a strong pull toward the church, so he headed to seminary in St. Louis.

Not to be a preacher who only stood at the pulpit and preached on Sunday mornings, but one who lived alongside people and helped them.

“My words are hollow if I don’t have a life that backs them up,” said Eberlein, who wears his hair short with a thick reddish beard. “Preaching is meaningless if I’m not living the life I preach.”

Today, Eberlein, an associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, is living that life. In a three-story house in Kansas City, Kan., he and his wife, Stephanie, and their 15-month-old daughter live with another couple, Luke and Julie Kammrath, and open their doors to other families and teens who need a place to stay.

It’s an “intentional Christian community”: Several people living under one roof with shared resources and the intent to help one another and others in the neighborhood.

When Wrenick said Bryant needed a place to stay, a place that would allow him to go to college and steer his life onto a path he wanted, Eberlein knew they could help.

“I thought, ‘Goodness, here’s another young man full of potential,’ ” said Eberlein, who came to the Kansas City area three years ago. “To hear his story was heartbreaking. But to see the heart he has I wanted to be a part of it, to help him achieve his goal, walk alongside him and get to know him.”

It’s what he and colleague Luke Kammrath — better known as Pastor Luke, also an associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran — and their wives envisioned and have tried to do for the past two years. When the Eberleins and Kammraths moved into the three-story home along 17th Street, they weren’t sure what their work in the neighborhood would be.

“We wanted to listen and learn,” Eberlein said.

Someone from the church showed him a Kansas City Star article about students in the Kansas City, Kan., district.

Hundreds were homeless, struggling with food and other basic needs.

“It was like, ‘Holy crap, I can’t believe this is happening,’ ” Eberlein said. “It was a slap in the face, punch in the stomach, a wakeup call of all wakeup calls, that people were living in cars and under bridges and we didn’t know about it.”

He called the school district and before long, liaisons sent homeless families to the two associate pastors and their home. Eventually, they purchased and renovated (Harmon Construction, of Olathe, provided the majority of the labor through their subcontractors) an abandoned home next door.

In the past two years, with the two houses, they’ve temporarily housed 15 families.

A mom and three kids who fled a domestic violence situation. A Bosnian family. A mom and her two kids who came here from North Dakota for a job that didn’t pan out.

One weekday night earlier this year, there was a knock on their door around 9. A woman stood there with her teenage son.

“I don’t want him anymore. You take him,” the woman told Eberlein and Kammrath.

They did. Because the guest rooms were full that night, with homeless families and two other teens with no place to go, the high school senior — who knew Bryant from school — stayed on a pull-out couch.

The teen pitched in, got to know the other residents, kept up with his school work.

Kammrath, 32, remembers the teen coming to him after about a month.

“He said, ‘I recognize what you’re doing for me and want to get out of here as soon as possible so someone else can use the room,’ ” Kammrath recalled.

Families don’t pay rent but often provide their own food through state services or wages they’ve earned. All they’re asked is to have “meaningful work.” That could be going to school, looking for work or holding down a job.

Most stay 30 to 90 days, though two families have stayed nearly a year.

Sometimes families hint at what they’ve been through, but only if they choose.

“Oftentimes families leave here and I only have a vague idea of what their story is,” Kammrath said. “A lot of times, their pasts haunt them so much. People have been judged. We concentrate more on where they’re going, what their future will be like, not where they’ve been.”

Bryant rounds the corner to the front of the three-story home on South 17th Street, heads up the concrete steps and greets a visitor.

Then, the introductions.

“This is Bobby,” Bryant says, gesturing to a man who had just been helping Bryant move furniture in the studio apartment out back where he stays. “He’s a neighbor, lives across the street there.”

Inside the home on 17th Street, eclectic furniture fills a large living room.

Kammrath is in one corner, in a chair he calls his office, working on his computer. Another man, not much older than Bryant, sits nearby.

“This is Daniel.”

He’s 19. With no place to live, he had ended up at a nearby church. Someone at that church called Eberlein. Daniel’s been here about six months now.

Bryant introduces people here as if they’re his family. In a way, he says, they are.

He has lived here since August. Just a few weeks ago, he moved into the studio apartment out back. Just last week they moved in another bed so his mom, who doesn’t have a place of her own, can come and stay.

“I feel like she’ll get a chance to succeed,” Bryant said. “I want more for myself and I want her to put herself to the test and make it.”

Eberlein, Kammrath and their wives didn’t hesitate to OK his mom moving in. They want what will make Bryant happy, whatever will help him achieve.

A student at nearby Donnelly College, Bryant is taking six hours this semester. That will go up to 12 hours in January.

He has plans now. He sets goals for himself, even puts them in his phone or writes them down.

Wrenick sees him as someone who just needed help covering basic needs.

“If he doesn’t have to worry about where his next meal is coming from or where he’s going to sleep at night, he can focus on other things,” she said. “He can have those dreams.”

Bryant wants to be a Spanish interpreter. In what capacity, he still doesn’t know. But growing up in a community with a large percentage of Hispanic people, he loves the idea of reaching people of a different culture and understanding how they think, knowing what they say.

He keeps his cap from graduation out where he can see it. Reminds him what he accomplished, and against what odds. Reminds him that he can do it again.

With a little help from the community, people like Wrenick and Kammrath and especially Eberlein.

“I tell him thank you like 13 times a day,” Bryant says. “But I know the way to pay him back is to make it. That’s how I’ll pay him back.”