I bought a house back in March. It wasn’t the ideal time with my son getting ready to graduate, and the thought of uprooting our little family in his last months before high school graduation was not something I wanted to do. However, my landlords were listing the house I’d been renting, and an opportunity to purchase my own home landed in my lap. During that time, my son barely paid attention, as his mind was already on his future and his life in college. My daughter, on the other hand, looked over every inch of our new home with me. We’d walk through the empty house and she’d talk about where our things could go and share ideas about how she and I would live (even what we’d eat) in our new home. We fell in love with it together and today, big brother all moved out, she and I make terrific ‘roomies,’ all set to enjoy her last couple of years at home.
Home. Every child should have the comfort of home, yet every child does not. In Henderson County, during the 2013-2014 school year, 314 students were counted as homeless. Of those students, 86 are what we call ‘unaccompanied homeless youth,’ or rather, youth experiencing homelessness who are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian. These children live in a variety of unsafe situations throughout our community including cars, parks, shelters, motels or ‘couch surfing,’ going from one friend’s house to another
The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth reports that nationwide, it is estimated that approximately1.6 to 1.7 million youth experience homelessness each year. Most of them have left home because of severe family dysfunction. Their research shows that:
- 20-40% of unaccompanied homeless youth were abused sexually in their homes, while 40-60% were abused physically.
- Over two-thirds of unaccompanied homeless youth report that at least one of their parent’s abuses drugs or alcohol.
- 20-40% of unaccompanied homeless youth have been thrown out of their homes because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or pregnant.
We find these causes to be mirrored in our own community. In fact, 20 of those 314 students were subjected to domestic violence and over half of the teens served in our Adolescent Parenting Program were homeless last year.
Meeting their needs is very complex and the solutions are not simple. It requires a community network of housing, education, health and mental health resources to begin to transform the issue. Putting a roof over their heads solves an immediate and real problem, but doesn’t fully meet their needs.
As our local community has grown in its awareness of these youth, we are pulling together in response. Here is what I know is going on to help. I share it in hopes that you will get involved, personally and financially to help out:
- HELP (Homeless Education Link Project) is a program of the Henderson County Public Schools. HELP employs two case managers to tend to the needs of students who are experiencing homeless, providing support to their families and ensuring the child has transportation to school.
- Homes for Youth is a newly incorporated, nonprofit organization that is represented by various religious congregations throughout Henderson County to address the needs of our local homeless youth with a plan to provide licensed, professionally staffed shelters for teens. Their first project will be a home for girls.
- Only Hope WNC provides services to homeless youth throughout the region; offering a supply closet of basic necessities, emergency housing, and an assistance fund (to help homeless teens cover sports participation fees, club dues, graduation expenses, etc.). They are also working to build the Only Hope Dream Home to provide stable housing to homeless youth as they transition into independent living.
Together, these organizations are working with a network of local agencies, including the Department of Social Services and the Department of Public Health to coordinate housing, health care, mental health/counseling services and social services to help these. Other local agencies like Blue Ridge Community Health Services, the Storehouse, IAM, Housing Assistance Corporation, Mainstay, Congregations for Children, Hope Rx, the Healing Place and the Children & Family Resource Center are all part of a community network that can meet the various needs of troubled youth.
Last winter, over 500 local citizens in our community gathered for Speak Out for Kids 2014 to discuss this issue. During these conversations we learned from one another, we began to understand the gaps that exist, and talked about some possible solutions. We learned that the number of foster care parents is at an all-time low. We discussed the need for shelters and therapeutic homes for youth and the possible solution of starting a host-home program to link families with extra space in their home to temporarily house a student who is homeless.
Homelessness can occur for many reasons. It is inextricably tied to poverty and lack of affordable housing as much as it is related to child abuse, domestic violence or drug/alcohol addiction of parents and/or youth. These young people need caring adults who are willing to help provide them with the layers of help they need. If you would like to get involved, or if you know of a teen that needs help, please contact me or one of these organizations.