During this holiday season of giving and helping others, there is a group of young people that are often forgotten mainly because they are not seen. Their ability to hide well makes them the “invisible homeless”, although these young people stand right in front of us every day. According to U.S. Department of Education stats, there were more than one million homeless students enrolled in our nation’s schools last year. Shocking is the fact that many children and teens find shelter in abandon homes, cheap hotels, stations, church basements, commentaries, hospitals and often as the very clever sleepover guest of other teens’ families who may or may not know of the student’s homelessness. If not helped, the homeless youth becomes a victim of drugs and sexual abuse. Statistics show many homeless youth engage in “survival sex” or the exchanging sex for food, clothing and shelter. They also deal drugs to meet basic needs.
It’s reported that on any given night in Georgia there can be as many as 45 thousand homeless children and teens on the streets and in temporary living situations. In Metro Atlanta is estimated that there are as many as 14 thousand youth that are homeless. The homeless youth problem does not discriminate and impacts all ethnic backgrounds. According to 2010 statistical data gathered by America’s Youngest Outcast 2010, Georgia is one of ten states with the highest rate of homeless youth in the country. During the academic year, public schools become the daily safe havens for two types of homeless children and teens, the ones in the system but without permanent guardians, and those who are on their own until their situation is discovered. For many homeless students, school provides the valuable chance to eat, wash up and be around their peers.
Under the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 , public schools are required to register homeless children which include those who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This law spells out that a child’s nighttime residence may include everything from: park benches, cars, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, hotels, bus or train stations etc… It also includes children living in emergency or transitional shelters and children awaiting foster care placement. School social workers and teachers in Metro Atlanta are often the first to identify many of these students. School social workers refer them to Georgia Department of Human Services, a Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS). But because there is little to no opportunity for follow up, many of these students slip through the cracks. If the state placement provided did not work out, many of them are back on the streets again. By the time they are age 17, DFCS no longer provides the same kind of residential assistance. This group then joins a larger epidemic of homeless young, the 18 – 22 year olds.
Advocates says, unlike homeless adults, runaway teens run from the light of their situation mainly because being a runaway is a crime and carries negative public stereotypes. What most people do not know or understand is that in many cases runaways and homeless youth find themselves in such a position because of adults who have let them down. Economic short falls have resulted in abandoned children and teens. There are countless cases of physical, sexual and mental abuse sending many young people to the streets. Then there are the teens that have made the rebellious choice to not follow the rules at home. For homeless families where there is a mother and children, male teens are not allow to stay in most downtown shelters with women and children. So the male child must find somewhere else to sleep. For a young man this opens the door to many pitfalls and safety concerns.
Child advocates know all too well the seriousness of teen homelessness. Simone Joye, Founder and Executive Director of the five year old program, Young People Matter (YPM), gives hundreds of troubled teens hope. Joye’s has years of experience with helping runaways and abused teens. Through volunteer efforts and non-profits assisting her, she reached out to and rescued many Metro Atlanta girls, victims of sexual abused and forced prostitution. She led teens to needed employment opportunities and through YPM she has been able to team up with school social workers and DFCS to help homeless youth find shelter and stability. During the Christmas holidays the YPM program works with Toys for Tots to collectd hundreds of toys for children.
Last September, Simone Joye was able to write a grant to finally receive some federal funding to help homeless youth in the area. Simone Joye is also a recipient of the 2012 Thomas C. Wilson Youth Service Award presented by the NAACP, DeKalb County Branch.
The YPM’s Open Hearts Youth Shelter is among solutions addressing this terrible problem. It is a voluntary, short-term residential emergency shelter and crisis intervention service for youth ages 10-17 years old who have run away from home, have been pushed out of their homes, are homeless or who are acting out and at-risk for abuse. Immediate emergency needs are meet, like food, clothing, healthcare, as well as educational support and referral opportunities to get them permanently off the streets. At this time the shelter only has six beds and for the time period of 21 days per student. Open Hearts also provides non-residential alternatives for parent(s), legal guardian(s) and legal custodians who need help with youth behavior problems.
Some teens refer themselves to the YPM programs as well as referrals coming from the school system, DFCS, parents/guardians, Juvenile Court and probation officers. As of January 2012, Young People Matter has been able to help 81 teens find stable permanent residency, assist more than 200 children and teens in its day program, and provide emergency services for more than 400 young people through its street outreach program. The youngest child helped was 12 years old. The program’s success is reflected in the number of students that go on to successful foster care, return to family members, enter the military and even go to college. Simone Joye says YPM identifies many homeless youth through its weekly street outreach.
Joye says, “We always ask children are you hungry? Not, why are you out here? Or, are you homeless?” It is important to approach a homeless youth in a non-threatening way if help is to be received.
Daily, Joye and her staff say they can see the hope that this program gives to the young people who simply have no place to turn. “It gives them something to hold on too…and you need hope to survive,” says Joye.
As a result of discovering and meeting so many needs, Young People Matters’ resources are stretched as it becomes overwhelm with needs of its own. Among the critical needs include volunteer tutors and educators to help students catch up with their grade level, and prepare for GEDs. Because a student can only stay in the shelter program for less than a month, there is a need for Host Homes where volunteers take in a student for a weekend as final placement arrangements are completed. The program is also needs of van for street outreach, clothing and toiletry items, and even luggage for students when they leave the facility. The facility itself has outgrown the space. Simone Joye says they are looking to find a larger building to help more young people and provide an umbrella of services.
But Joye says if there is one gift anyone can give to this cause is the gift understanding. Instead of turning away and or judging a homeless or runaway youth, reach out in love to help them. Ask them if they are hungry, take the time to refer them to sources of “safe” help, or make a phone call. Simone Joye says, across the country, Quick Trips (QT) gas stations are designated Safe Places, where runaways and at-risk youth can come in off the street, receive food and drink, and wait for volunteer help.
If identifying a homeless or runaway youth, visit the Young People Matters site for an Open Hearts Youth Shelter Referral Form, or call or text the 24-hour emergency hotline at (770) 912-2972. As serious as this youth problem is, there is still hope. Now is the time to act.