Thursday, November 8, 2007

Helping Homeless Teenagers Make It On Their Own

Yesterday we learned a little about what life is like for homeless kids who are on their own, and how they come to be in that position. Today, we'll take a look at some different types of programs that are meant to help homeless teenagers.
If you were a kid, on your own on the streets, your basic and most primitive needs would be the need for food, shelter, and safety from harm. And there are many shelters that provide just that... a safe place to sleep at night, and some food. One such place is Victory Over Violence, an emergency teens helter in Canada. Their website explains exactly what teens can expect. They can get a ride to the shelter if they need one, and will be escorted in and out by a police officer. The kids' parents will not be called and no questions will be asked. They'll get a sleeping bag and a cot, toiletries, snacks, and a decent breakfast in the morning. Two staff members are there to supervise, but things like counseling and casework are not available. Basically, this type of shelter exists to serve the basic needs of homeless kids.
But unless one would expect teenagers to live the rest of their lives out on the streets, surviving day by day and only hoping for the privilege of a bed to sleep on at night and a warm meal in the morning, there are other needs that must be met. Lets think about it. What do homeless teens need?
-Job skills?
-Independent Living skills?
-Positive types of recreation?
-Perhaps family reunification?
-Or at least, identifying someone the youth can think of as family?
-Help with finding a permanent home?

Many programs work to provide all of these things to kids who are on their own.
One well-known program is Covenant House. This program has sites in Anchorage, Atlanta, Atlantic City, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Guatemala City, Los Angeles, Managua, Mexico City, Newark, New Orleans, New York, Oakland, Orlando, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Tegucigalpa, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington, D.C. Their emergency shelter, or crisis center, sites are open to all teens. Any kid can walk into a crisis center and recieve the basics... food, clothing, and a place to sleep. But they also recieve case management, counseling, medical care, and other support services. These sites are open 24/7, and kids can stay anywhere from one day to ninety days. (The website says that family reunification is the first goal they have for any kids there, but it doesn't say whether kids are required to call their parents and let them know there whereabouts, or whether police warrant checks are run on kids who show up.) Covenant House also runs a transitional living program, where teens can stay up to eighteen months while going to school or vocational programs, learning independent living skills, getting counseling, and working on a plan for permanent housing. The program, called Rights Of Passage, is meant to help formerly homeless teenagers get on the road to becoming successful, non-homeless adults.
Another place, Orion Center in Seattle, runs a drop-in center for homeless teens to recieve services, and also operates it's own school so that young clients can earn their highschool diplomas or GED's more easily than they would if they had to figure out ways to get back into the public school system.
Many cities have shelters similar to Covenant House or Orion Center, with programs similar to these. Many also offer mentoring programs and field trips, to help kids live more of a "normal" life.
But what if you are a teen who is hiding out from someone? A teen who may have a warrant out from the police... perhaps just for running away in the first place? We need to keep in mind that sometimes parents who are "pillars of the community" abuse their children behind closed doors. While a teenager running away from a crowded group home in foster care, or from an abusive home with severely drug-addicted parents, may not even be looked for, what if the runaway is a teen from an upper-middle-class suburban family? The parents may call the police, report their kid missing, and have plans to send the kid off to military school as soon as they find him, because he's such a "bad kid," when in reality the kid has been severely abused for years and hasn't been able to get anyone to believe him. A kid like this is way, way less likely to walk into a place like Covenant House, or even a place like Victory Over Violence. So how do these kids get their needs met?
Outreach programs may be the saving grace for kids who don't want to make use of an actual shelter. Covenant House, and many other shelters, run outreach programs. Usually, a bus or van will go out into areas where unsheltered homeless teens tend to reside... often areas where teen prostitution and drug use are very common. Volunteers and staff members will then hand out food, dispense minor medical care, and especially just lend a listening ear to lonely kids. They can also try to convince kids to go to an actual shelter to recieve more complete services.
Life can be very, very rough for kids who are on their own, and all the shelters, crisis centers, and outreach programs in existence cannot help all of the kids who are out on the streets... yet. But as more people become aware of the issues homeless teenagers deal with, and these organizations recieve more support in the form of volunteers, donations, and publicity, maybe someday every teen will have a safe place to be.

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