It’s 4:30 p.m. now which means dinner will be served in 30 minutes. In the basement of the Eugene Evangelical Church on 8th and Monroe in the Jefferson Westside Neighborhood, teens ranging from 14 to early 20s have been coming in and out for the last few hours.
Hanging on the wall behind a drum set and keyboard are traffic signs: “Stop,” “No Parking,” “One Way,” “End.” An ironic reminder of the streets many of these teens came here to escape, even if just for a few hours.
Some socialize and greet friends that they see almost every week at this time, while others take the opportunity to relax, play guitar, shower or dig through boxes for a dry pair of socks.
The basement is home to Hosea Youth Services, HYS, one of a few faith and civic-based organizations formed to support troubled and homeless teens in the Eugene area. The center is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from about 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. for youth under the age of 23.
Living on the streets is no place for a child to grow up. Nonetheless, every year thousands of children under the age of 18 will suffer homelessness in the Eugene and Springfield areas alone.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 39% of the homeless population in the United States is under the age of 18, with 42% of those under the age of five.
Teen homelessness is no less of a problem in Oregon. The Oregon Runaway and Homeless Work Group estimates that from 2002-2003 there were about 24,000 homeless youth aged 11 to 21 in Oregon alone, with the majority being 15-16.
Many of these children are part of families that have become homeless. However, two percent of homeless youth under the age of 18 are on their own and must fend for themselves on the streets. These homeless youth who lack parental, foster, or institutional care are sometimes known as unaccompanied youth.
Many of the teens at HYS qualify as unaccompanied youth. However, others are former homeless youth or youth who still live with their families but are in need of a hot meal and a place to clean up every once in a while.
While there are many estimates about the amount of homeless youth, it is hard to know the exact number at any one particular time because they are sometimes hard to find or don’t immediately qualify for homeless services even though they are technically homeless. Many homeless youth “house hop” or “couch surf” with friends or family and so don’t necessarily live on the streets. However, they are still without a permanent residence and are technically homeless.
After sitting down in HYS for just a few hours you will hear many different causes and reasons why these teens have become homeless.
Ryan Davis, 18, a frequent visitor to HYS, says that he decided to leave his father’s house after being physically abused. He house hopped and lived on the streets for about a year before getting an apartment with a friend about a year ago.
Looking back, “I would have preferred to live with a few bruises now and then,” Davis says.
Amanda Alaniz, 27, a former street kid and current volunteer at HYS, started living on the streets after her parents told her she had to get a job or get out. This seems to be a common theme among homeless youth.
In a 1995 study by the Department of Health and Human Services, more than half of the youth interviewed said that their parents either did not care that they were leaving or that they were told to leave.
Economic problems are also a major cause of teen homelessness. Families are sometimes broken up after a family member becomes unemployed or the family goes through a financial crisis. Older children must fend for themselves and split off from the family without the financial or housing support necessary.
There is a certain culture that goes along with being a street kid. While hanging around down at HYS, curious names can be heard being shouted across the room: Midnight, Smiles, Loaner, Yogi, D, Redneck. These nicknames are a part of that culture.
According to D, 27, a former street kid and now volunteer at the center, people are given nicknames based on their personality or they choose it themselves if they don’t like being called by their real name.
Being homeless would be a struggle for anyone, but because of their age and inexperience, Homeless youth have an especially hard time trying to survive on the streets.
Due to their economic situation and often lack of ability to find a job to support themselves, many adolescents may exchange sex for food, clothing or shelter as a means of survival. This puts homeless youth at a much higher risk of contracting AIDS or HIV related illnesses.
It is now 5:00 p.m. as Mike Langley, director of the HYS Center, tells everyone to quiet down as people take a seat along the long tables with a bowl of homemade soup and a slice of pizza in front of them. He starts to explain the dangers of H1N1 and how more shelters will be opening up around town during extreme temperatures below 28 degrees.
There is still a lot of chatter among the kids as Langley starts a prayer. Only a few bow their heads. Langley stops, annoyed by the chatter. “I know He can hear me but I can’t hear me!” He says, calmly but firmly.
The prayer ends and the chatter resumes over a hot meal.
While becoming educated might be a homeless teen’s best method for escaping homelessness, it can be extremely hard for them to accomplish.
According to Kasey White, family and student advocate for the homeless for the Eugene School District 4J, the homeless teens she works with have many obstacles to overcome in order to graduate from high school.
White says that out of the about 10,000 students in the Eugene District 4J, 743 students were identified as homeless and of that, 209 were identified as unaccompanied.
She contends that one of the biggest issues is their high mobility rate, which often leads to switching schools multiple times. Many don’t have access to shower facilities, clean clothes, a place to do homework, store their belongings or even a place to make breakfast before school.
“Not having the basic things to start the morning off right makes it really challenging,” White says.
Davis, who was homeless and house hopping for about a year, managed to remain in school the entire time and will be graduating this June from Willamette High School. Even at the age of 18, he realizes the importance of an education and tries to stress it to his fellow street kids. “Schooling is everything,” he says.
However, attending high school while homeless wasn’t the easiest. “It’s rough,” Davis says, “But I’ve gotten over the whole drama and rumor spreading crap.”
He says that he never received any help from the school system for being homeless even though people knew about his situation. “Everything I have now was given to me through a charity organization or I worked my ass off for it.”
Davis seems to be a minority when it comes to homeless teens who actually successfully graduate.
“The record is pretty dismal for sure,” White says about homeless teen graduation rates.
According to the National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty, “38 percent of the homeless population have less than a high school degree by age 18… [and] 50 percent of the homeless population report dropping out of school during the course of their education.”
However, there has been some work done at the Federal level to try to create a support system for homeless youth in the school system.
Because of the McKinney-Vento Act passed in 1987, and reauthorized as part of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, all school districts are required to have liaisons, such as White, to work with homeless youth and their families.
The Act is meant to protect the rights of homeless youth and ensure that they have the same access to public schooling as non-homeless youth.
The Act contends that, “Homelessness alone is not a sufficient reason to separate students from the mainstream school environment.” And that, “ Homeless children and youths should have access to the education and other services that [they] need to ensure that [they] have an opportunity to meet the same challenging State student academic achievement standards to which all students are held.”
However, as White says, “As a school district we have to focus on transportation, enrollment and school success. We don’t get into the housing system as much… we don’t have funding for that.”
While the act assures a homeless youth’s right to education, it does not really address how to help them in escaping homelessness.
Working with homeless teens such as those at HYS can be challenging but rewarding at the same time.
“It’s easy to get really down about it,” White says. “It’s a mixed bag. A lot of the students are really survivors and they can be really inspiring to work with. But at the same time, it’s depressing to know that we as community let this happen.”
The 20 or so teens that gather for a hot bowl of soup at HYS represent just a fraction of youth in the United States that are without a permanent home. And while it is clearly not a life that many would choose to have, as Davis says, being homeless is “not a bad life in a sense it’s not the worse life you could have.”
It’s 5:30 p.m. now and the meal is over. Empty cups and bowls litter the tables as the basement starts to empty. Kids make their way back outside onto the streets ready to brave the night with a full stomach.
Side Bar 1:
Eugene Evangelical Church where HYS is located
Entrance into HYS
Art on check-in desk
Messages that lead you down the stairs to the basement.
Inside the Center:
Side Bar Two:
Facts About Teen Homelessness:
- 1.6 – 2.8 million youth in the United States runaway every year – National Runaway Switchboard
- The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that each year, of the 3.5 million people who experience homelessness, 1.35 million are children.
- 39 percent of the national homeless population are children, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
- In 2000, of the homeless youth identified by the Department of Education, 35% lived in shelters 34% lived doubled up with friends and family and 23% in motels or other locations
- A history of foster care has a high correlation with homelessness. One 1992 study from the National Association of Social Workers reported that “more than one and five youth who arrived at shelters came directly from foster care, and that more than one in four had been in foster care in the previous year.”
- A study of 50 cities done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in 2004, found that “in virtually every city, the city’s official estimated number of homeless people greatly exceeded the number of emergency shelter and transitional housing spaces.”
- According to the League of Women Voters of Lane County, who participated in a study on homeless youth in Oregon, in 2004 to 2005 between 2,500 and 3,000 homeless or runaway youth made contact with social service agencies in Eugene and Springfield.