Homeless Not Hopeless:
Southwest Oklahoma Groups Fighting to End Youth Homelessness
Jullian Phillips was only eight-years-old, when his journey into DHS (Department of Human Service) custody began. Phillips and siblings, were dropped off at a stranger’s home, by their mother, never to see her again. Anita Crews found out at 17-years-old she was pregnant. Unfortunately, Crews was no longer welcomed in her family’s home because of their religious beliefs and all of a sudden she was out on her own. That was the beginning of Phillips’ and Crews’ homeless story.
“I left my home at 17, because I was pregnant, and I was from a Christian home,” Crews said. “I was scared. It was really scary to go from, the lights coming on when you flipped the switch, having food in the fridge when we want and a bathroom to use when we needed to, to not having that anymore. ”
Both Phillips, 20, and Crews, 34, recalls a time of feeling lost, hopeless and just trying to survive. What others would look at from the outside and see as a troubled teen, angry, and careless, with no sign of hope, isn’t who they were, but at the same time Phillips and Crews, didn’t have the tools to express that and the means to pull their lives together on their own.
“When I was about eight my mom dropped us off on some lady’s porch, and then around nine or ten they (DHS) started splitting us up, me and my siblings, and then going from home to home, that’s when I really started having aggression and anger issues,” said Phillips.
There are a lot of generalizations, misconceptions and even stigma attached to homelessness. Generally homelessness is thought of as the lack of shelter; not having a place to live. However, over the years of studying homelessness and working with the homeless, experts have discovered that homelessness can’t be so simply defined and categorized. There are different types of homelessness, as well as various situations and circumstances that can lead someone to becoming homeless. Such as, was the case with Jullian Phillips and Anita Crews; two different individuals, different situations, both leading to a homeless experience.
The homeless population is not limited to drug and alcohol addicts or individuals who cannot or are not willing to maintain employment. Neither is homelessness exclusive to those who are physically living on the streets. Many factors can cause anyone to find him or herself homeless and trying to figure out what to do next.
Types of Homelessness
What many may not actually realize is that a person living in a shelter such as a Women’s Shelter for domestic violence victims, is still considered a homeless individual. Far too many women have to weigh the decision of staying in an abusive relationship that could possibly cost their life or becoming homeless. Some are lucky enough to secure a room at a women’s shelter before the vacancies run out. This is a form of sheltered homelessness. Veterans’ homes also fit in that category.
Unsheltered homelessness can include living in cars, parks, under bridges, and anywhere possible that isn’t normally meant for habitation. These are individuals, families, and youth who are physically living on the streets.
Chronic homelessness refers to what first comes to mind when the majority thinks of homelessness. The chronically homeless are those who have been living on the streets for a year to several years or more. These tend to be the addicts and the mentally ill. The National Alliance to End Homelessness specifically defines chronic homelessness as long-term or repeated homelessness, coupled with a disability.
Causes of Homelessness
Dan Straughan, Executive Director for Oklahoma City’s Homeless Alliance, reported in A Roof of One’s Own, the causes of homelessness are varied.
The article outlines substance abuse and addiction, mental illness, decreased health insurance, lack of affordable housing, those re-entering society from jail, divorce, natural disaster, job loss and a declining economy as factors that can lead to homelessness.
A major demographic of the homeless that often goes underrepresented and unconsidered is that of homeless youth. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that during a year approximately 550,000 unaccompanied, single youth and young adults up to age 24 experience a homelessness episode of longer than one week. Approximately 380,000 of those youth are under the age of 18.
Phillips and Crews would have been classified as homeless youth.
According to HUD’s (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, there were 194,302 youth and children homeless on a single night in 2014. HUD stated that given the difficulty of counting homeless youth, that estimate is likely an undercount.
Homeless youth can be difficult to count because they are less likely to be open about being homeless and put forth more effort to blend in with their peers who are not homeless.
Dan Davis, an outreach worker responsible for homeless teens told The Washington Post, that it’s never easy to get adolescents to admit they’re homeless, let alone to accept help.
While youth classified as runaways are also among those numbers, they are more often than not, running away from disruptive and dysfunctional family conditions. Surveys show that youth who runaway most commonly do so because of neglect, physical or sexual abuse, mental and/or emotional strain and disabilities, addiction of a family member living in the home, or the parent(s) have told them to leave.
In the periodical, Our Young Runaways, an interesting point was made.
“We know that many children are afraid to run to social services because of what they’ve heard about being in the care system,” says Martin Houghton-Brown, policy adviser at the Children’s Society. “They’re frightened of the situation that they’re running from, and we don’t want to create a situation where they’re afraid of running to a resource.” (Our Young Runaways, pg. 31)
Among the numbers of homeless youth are also youth who age out of foster care with nowhere to go or are unable to maintain stable housing once they are out on their own.
In the book, On Their Own: What Happens to Kids When They Age Out of the Foster Care System, referenced information derived from Shirk, Martha and Stangler, Gary , stating that, “most children leaving foster care aren’t even equipped with the basic tools (a high- school diploma, a driver’s license or state ID, work experience) the average 18-year- old possesses.” Shirk and Stangler examined several individual cases in various states to see how well the children faired.
This is the situation Phillips found himself in, struggling to find stability once aging out of foster care. He shared stories of sleeping under bridges, being exposed to drugs, stealing, and learning how to survive on the streets.
Oklahoma ranked the fifth worst state for homeless children, with nearly 44,000 homeless youth, in 2014.
The article, Schools Still See Surges in Homeless Students reported that the Federal law defines a homeless child as any child who doesn’t have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” The numbers of youth doubling-up with friends or family, living in hotels and motels, and those without any kind of shelter at all have increased since 2009. The study went on to say that if added together, homeless students now would make up the largest school district in the country—at nearly 1.17 million, more than the entire student population of New York City public schools.
Doubling up is a case of overcrowded living conditions. Another form of homelessness common among homeless youth is “couch surfing.” Couch surfing, is when the individual is hopping from house to house, and friend to friend to sleep for the night or couple of nights. It is not a permanent and stable living situation.
Living under these conditions can yield many challenges and dangers for young people.
Who’s working on the problem?
There are alliances, organizations, agencies and churches state to state who work hard to assist the homeless, those living in poverty and who are at risk of becoming homeless, as well as work to soon see an end to the homeless epidemic. Along with those groups are also groups who specifically address youth and family (with children) homelessness.
The Southwestern Continuum of Care of Southwest Oklahoma brings different agencies together who work with impoverished individuals and families and the homeless, to best effectively serve them. Amid the agencies represented at that table, sits Amanda Bernasconi, Emergency Solutions Coordinator of Southwestern Youth Services, Inc., Altus, Oklahoma and Onreka Givens Johnson, Founder and Executive Director of The Next Step, Lawton, Oklahoma, who together facilitate the youth committee of the SW Continuum of Care.
Bernasconi not only represents Southwestern Youth Services but she is also the Founder and Director of the Jackson County Homeless Prevention Alliance.
Much like the Continuum of Care, the JC Homeless Prevention Alliance brings different agencies and individuals together who work with poverty and homelessness. Bernasconi is passionate about helping youth and families get off the street, and stay off the streets. She says her goal is to raise awareness of the homeless problem in Jackson County, Oklahoma, to end it and to prevent it.
As the Emergency Solutions Coordinator of Southwestern Youth Services, Bernasconi operates with the emergency solutions grant, that allows her to assist families and youth with rapid re-housing, emergency shelter, rent and utilities to prevent them from becoming homeless, as well as running an independent living home for homeless teens.
Case management is done with each family and youth, and they are taught basic life skills. The youth are also required to either be in school, working, or both and during the time they are not, they are required to participate in community service.
“When I’m not able to help a youth or a family, I always give them resources,” said Bernasconi.
Bernasconi is well connected with other resources throughout Jackson County such as Operation C.A.R.E Ministry, which operates a food pantry, clothing center, assists with rent, utilities, gas, emergency shelter, and more. The Director of Operation C.A.R.E, Angela Ybarra, is a part of the Jackson County Homeless Prevention Alliance.
When an individual or family comes to Bernasconi’s office but doesn’t meet the criteria for their services, she then connects them with other resources such as Operation C.A.R.E.
The Next Step program in Lawton, OK, Founded by Onreka Givens Johnson, helps youth transition from homelessness, most of whom aged out of foster care, to transform their lives and develop the necessary life skills to be productive citizens, and self-sufficient.
“A big problem is that a lot of youth age out of care and they have no identification, and don’t understand how to obtain their birth documents. They can’t get a job without it and they end up stuck. We help them with that,” said Johnson.
Under The Next Step program is also the Genesis House, for homeless teen and young adult females. While living in the home the girls receive case management, and are taught the skills needed to secure housing, maintain employment, manage a bank account, and to prosper.
“These youth are not hopeless. They have potential; they just need to be taught how to maintain their lives. They need guidance and the support of someone in their corner,” said Bernasconi.
Thanks to The Next Step program, Jullian Phillips, now maintains employment, has a stable home of his own, and is a great father to his daughter.
“I call Mrs. Onreka, Mom, because she’s taught me everything, more than my mom ever could,” said Phillips.
Anita Crews, now has a stable home for her and her children and expresses much gratitude for Operation C.A.R.E Ministry.
Nasly Espinal, 20, came to Altus from Honduras to live with her mother when she was 17 years old. Though she was nervous, she was excited to finally be able to live with her mom and sister. However, after enduring her mother’s verbal and bloody physical abuse, along with isolating her from others, Espinal finally left home and her mother didn’t try to stop her.
Espinal walked the streets that night, unable to speak English well, and not knowing where she would go.
It was because of Southwestern Youth Services, with the help and support of Bernasconi that Espinal is now a student at Western Oklahoma State College, makes exceptional grades and has the hope and dream of attending a University to become a Dentist.
“I want to do good because people believe in me. They believe in me so I believe in me,” said Espinal.
The biggest proponent of making the end of homelessness a reality is the increase of awareness and resources, but also the termination of the stigma that has been attached to homelessness.
A homeless individual isn’t a hopeless individual.
Sitting down with youth who have experienced a homeless situation it is quickly learned that it is not a situation they wish for and that they actually have hope and desires to achieve more but struggle with figuring out how. The awareness and access to resources is vital.
The sooner community citizens, city officials, leaders and law makers understand and recognize, the homeless as people with hope and possibilities and work together to provide them adequate resources to help them also realize that potential within themselves, the sooner the homeless epidemic can be solved.