For teens that live in a stable and supportive home, nutritious meals, clean clothes and the presence of loving concerned adults are pleasant facts of life.
But sadly, for Philadelphia’s homeless teens, life is anything but pleasant. These at-risk young adults — and there are an estimated 2,000 of them on the streets everyday — walk a fine line just to survive from one day to the next.
They are a hidden population of young people in a desperate situation that easily spirals down into depression, substance abuse, attempted suicide, prostitution and petty crime.
Experts on the issues of homeless youth report that routinely engage in risky behaviors and have high rates of prior arrests and convictions.
And it’s not just a problem in Philadelphia where experts noted 85 percent of the homeless youth are African Americans.
Throughout the nation there are too many young adults who have no safe place to go when the sun goes down. No one really knows how many there are because, experts say, they are a population that’s hiding in plain sight.
“When we think of homeless people, we tend to think of adults or families. They’re the most visible members of our homeless population,” said Cordella Hill, executive director of Covenant House in Philadelphia. “But most of us are not aware of the teenagers, they’re unseen.”
Covenant House, which has locations in other cities, serves between 400 and 500 kids a year. Hill said those numbers are steadily rising.
“When Covenant House started here in Philly in 1999 we saw about 300 kids a year coming through. Now it’s about 450 to 500 a year, so the numbers have been rising. Many of them do what we call ‘couch surfing’, moving from place to place,” Hill said. “But there’s also a population on the streets that tends to travel in groups and kind of look out for each other — they’ll often stay in abandoned buildings, they call them ‘abandominiums.’ There’s another segment of this population that comes out of foster care or some other kind of placement so they end up at our doors or some other shelter. What amazes me is the numbers of new kids that we see, which tells me this problem had not been addressed.”
The choice given to him was either stay with his dysfunctional relatives or hit the streets.
Marvin chose the streets.
When approached by The Tribune he decided not to give his last name.
Marvin is originally from Atlantic City and his father walked away from his family. He left New Jersey at age 17 and he is now 22. He’s training to become a dental assistant but before that he was a high school dropout and a substance abuser with a bleak future.
He also struggled through the issues of verbal and sexual abuse.
“I was already in the system when I lived in New Jersey. I basically came to Philadelphia at 17 to find my relatives after my father left and when I did it definitely was not what I expected. I saw people using drugs, selling drugs and involved in all kinds of illegal activity,” he said. “I’ve seen people, family members who were shot to death standing just a few feet away from me. One family member drank herself to death. I knew I didn’t want to be around that. I basically got caught up in the city and things that were going on around me. I had to get out. But being out there on the streets was just as risky. I started using drugs.”
Marvin found sanctuary at Covenant House but didn’t stay to finish the programs. He’s been in and out of the facility four times. Now he can see a brighter future but he admits it took several times around the track before his eyes were open.
“You suffer as much as you do to get it out of you,” he said. “And for kids who have a lot of anger, the greatest kind of revenge is success. I had a lot of self-hatred. My mindset was like, ‘Why should I trust you when the people who brought me into this world treated me like dirt?’”
Covenant House started in the late 1960s in New York City. A Franciscan priest, the Reverend Bruce Ritter, a tenured professor at Manhattan College chose to step down from his post and begin a new ministry. He and a colleague, Father James Fitzgibbon, moved into a tenement building in the East Village, and began to help the city’s poor.
By 1972 Covenant House was officially incorporated with its first intake center established at 504 LaGuardia Place. Since then it has expanded and established other facilities across the country. There are also Covenant Houses in Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. Currently, under the leadership of Kevin Ryan, Covenant House serves 71,000 homeless kids each year. And, as Hill said, those numbers are growing.
Hill said in Philadelphia, Covenant House is the only shelter where homeless teens can come right in off the streets and get a bed. Normally homeless individuals have to go through some kind of placement. In adult shelters, homeless teens report they don’t feel safe.
“At 18-years old they might think they’re grown, but the reality is that they’re not,” Hill said. “We take in youth between the ages of 18 and 21, male and female. We also have young mothers with children. We have a total of 51 beds.”
Hill said it’s more difficult to find housing for young, seemingly able-bodied males than for females. Especially for mothers and children, resources are easier to access in the community. But for young males, it’s more challenging. The stay for young males is generally about 60 days. The females tend to be a little more focused in terms of what their goals are. It’s mandatory that they save 75 percent of what they earn and the money is turned over to them when they’re ready to move forward.
“There’s just fewer resources, especially housing, for young single males who are just starting out,” Hill said. “There’s much more available for young single mothers. The other piece of all this are mental health issues, like schizophrenia, that many times start to show up at around age 18. We’ve witnessed this; everything is fine at ages 16 or 17 and then around age 18, things start to distort. Some of our kids will self-medicate with drugs, others just distrust the mental health system all together. We see anger and aggression issues that have been unresolved — we see it all because we have an open door policy, no questions asked.”
According to Hill, many of these homeless youth have been put out of their homes by parents. She said many of them tell stories of a mother who chose a boyfriend over them. Others, she said were just kicked out at age 18 to make their own way. Still others ran away from emotional, sexual and physical abuse or parents or guardians who were hooked on drugs.
“I’ve had young women run into the shelter with nothing but the clothes on their back and I mean they were running from something,” Hill said. “We have young people who have been in placement, in foster care who have ‘aged out’ of the system. What should happen is they should be discharged to transitional living programs — to help them develop the skills they need to be on their own or reunited with family or some other safe environment. That’s not the tendency, unfortunately. The tendency is discharge, which means, we are no longer responsible for you. I don’t want to disparage the Department of Human Services in any way but the focus isn’t on preparing these young people for independence. It starts too late; the emphasis isn’t as focused as it should be, on helping these kids gain the skills needed to succeed on their own. You can no longer succeed in this society without an education or some sort of vocational skill set. I get kids at age 18 and I ask them, ‘What can you do?’ and they’ll say ‘Well, I can rap.’ I’m sorry but that’s not really going to help them get a job or help me get them a job. I worry everyday about what are my kids going to do in five years. They’re not going to go away.”
Hill said the counselors at Covenant House constantly work with the residents on educational issues. Many of them are unable to fill out a job application and their reading and comprehension skills are between the 6th and 8th grade levels.
“Even the military requires that you pass certain competency tests,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take to help our children in Philadelphia realize the value of education because so many of them don’t see it as an avenue out. They don’t see the point, they don’t want to do the four years of school. I’m seeing this in an entire generation and it really makes me concerned over what’s going to happen to them.”
Dell Meriwether, Deputy Commissioner, Children and Youth services at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services said the problem of homeless youth is a very serious one.
“This is very serious. I see youth on the street everyday and yes, many of them don’t appear to be homeless but they are,” he said, adding that DHA doesn’t have all of the resources it needs to fully address the problem.
One of the ways these young people are assisted is through the Achieving Independence Center located at 1118 Market St. Part of their job is to work with youth who have been in foster care or are out of their homes for any number of various reasons.
At the center they are imparted the skills needed to live independent lives — job skills, dispute resolution, how to prepare for an interview and other basic living skills. But they are not mandated to go.
“They selectively go to the center. If they even choose to leave foster care, they can still participate up to age 21. But, because of the oppositional nature of some of our young people, or mental health or drug abuse issues, they may choose not to engage at the center,” he said. “For others it’s a matter of the difficulty of finding opportunities to work.”
Another homeless teen, Tanikah, 19, also declined to give her last name.
Originally from Erie, she moved to Philadelphia to live with her father when her mother became ill.
Expecting a stable environment she quickly realized her father was addicted to crack.
“He kicked me out after I graduated from high school on June 6, 2009. My friend told me about Covenant House but at first I didn’t go,” she said. “He kicked me out because he had hallucinations. Sometimes he wouldn’t know who I was because he wasn’t in the right state of mind. Sometimes I would be locked out of the house for a few days. It was hard. I was on my own for two months, hopping from house to house — staying with friends. When that didn’t work out I would be on the streets, staying in the park — things like that. Most times people won’t let you stay at their house but for a few days before they start asking ‘When are you moving on?’ But like I said, my friend got me into Covenant House, I got in right away. I really had nowhere else to go. My first day here they made sure I ate. I was already applied to go to Thompson Institute for criminal justice and after I came here I applied for the R.O.P. — the Rites of Passage which is transitional living for young adults. I’m pretty dedicated to my job at KFC and I’m training to become a manager, so it’s going pretty good. When I’m finished with Thompson I plan to become a probation officer. It’s taken about 18 months to get myself together through the Rites of Passage.”
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless the problems that push young people into the streets fall into three interrelated categories: economic problems, family problems and residential instability.
“Many homeless youth leave home after years of physical and sexual abuse, strained relationships, addiction of a family member and parental neglect,” the report said. “Disruptive family conditions are the principal reason that young people leave home.”
According to the Coalition’s research more than half of the youth interviewed during shelter stays reported that either their parents knew they were leaving and didn’t care or they were told to leave. Studies show that 46 percent of runaway and homeless youth have been physically abused and 17 percent were forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member.
According to Hill, in Philadelphia, there are more than 2,000 homeless children and youth in homeless shelters across the city on any given day.
Many of them move around frequently, switch schools often, have poor grades and excessive absences, or have dropped out of school altogether.
Research from the federal government’s Interagency Council on Homelessness states that while the exact number of homeless or unaccompanied youth is difficult to determine, the most recent information from the Department of Education reports 52,950 unaccompanied homeless youth were served through school-based programs in 2008-09.
According to studies by Housing and Urban Development at least 22,631 homeless young people utilized emergency or transitional housing services in 2009. And experts agree those numbers are seriously undercounted and that without education and the development of marketable skills, today’s homeless youth become tomorrow’s homeless adults.
“I’m seriously concerned about what’s going to happen to these kids over the next five to ten years,” Hill said. “These kids come from our community. I did a presentation recently at Germantown Friends School, and as I looked out at the young people in the audience it was clear that I could put my kids in the audience and no one could tell the difference. As I said, these kids are hiding in plain sight. They come from our community and from various situations. Some of these kids are the oldest members of the family who left home so younger kids could eat. This place is a sanctuary; I tell them I can’t protect them on the other side of the door. But while they’re here, no matter their gender, race, religions, sexual preference, it doesn’t matter, they’re all welcome here. It’s a choice to be here.”
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