Hiding in Plain Sight: First Time Survey of Georgia’s Homeless Young People

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If you were expecting Dickens, forget it. Homeless kids in Georgia do not have a special look.  They’re hiding right in front of you. That’s the first thing we learned from Mary, who looks like any other teenager in Atlanta.  Her hair is tied up with a pink ribbon on top of her head and several subtle piercings adorn her face and ears.  Dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, she is quick to flash her big, bright smile.  Mary is one of an unknown number of homeless young people living in Atlanta.

Mary’s experience is not very different from that of many homeless teens.  After a stormy relationship with her mother, she was kicked out of her parents’ house on her 18th birthday three weeks ago.

“I didn’t get along with my mom, but my dad was okay.  We got along,” she said.

Her best friend lives in Atlanta, so Mary made her way east, soon finding herself alone in a big city that was very different from her small-town home in Alabama.

No one knows how many young people are homeless.  And so last Thursday, Mary joined a team of other kids from the youth shelter Covenant House as they drove through Atlanta looking for homeless kids.  The team was part of the first ever Homeless Youth Count Project, a statewide initiative funded by the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.

Street teams from Covenant House, CHRIS Kids, the Young Adult Guidance Center, and Stand Up for Kids canvassed neighborhoods in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb Counties, and Savannah.

The teams went to the places where homeless kids go—malls, libraries, parks—with surveys that will help to fill in the gaps in understanding who these kids are.

We rode with the Covenant House team, which asked that we not use real names or take pictures of any of the homeless young people we encountered, including those who were part of the survey team.  To protect their privacy and their safety, we are using aliases.

Joining Mary on the survey team were three other young people.  Tom, street-wise and wearing a basketball jersey, was smiling and cracking jokes.

“I’ve been going through this since I was 16,” he said.  “But this is the first time I’ve been in a shelter, period.”

Larry, wearing a red hoodie, was serious and quiet.  He said he had been at Covenant House six times.

“I got thrown out of the house for a fight,” he said.

Finally, there was Daisy, a dancer and theater actor who said she wanted to study journalism.  Daisy moved to Atlanta from Brooklyn only 3 days earlier to escape a bad relationship.

“I wanted to go somewhere where no one knew me,” she said.

On Thursday morning the survey team convened in the Covenant House kitchen after breakfast.  They sat around a large table still covered with a Christmas tablecloth and listened to instructions.  The kids got clipboards with copies of the survey and began to familiarize themselves with the questions.  They practiced interviewing each other and making sure they were asking all the questions on the two-sided survey.  Competing questions collided across the table as the four young people practiced.

“Where did you sleep last night?”

“Do you have any children?”

“Are you in school?”

Soon, they were piling into Covenant House’s white 16-passenger van.

Atlanta is facing a serious challenge.  Homelessness is often found at the intersection of high poverty rates, high dropout rates, and high unemployment and Atlanta is not doing well in any of these categories.  According to research by Covenant House, one in four 18 to 24-year olds in Atlanta lives in poverty.  Twenty-two percent never finished high school or got a GED and the unemployment rate for 20 to 24-year-olds tops 15 percent.

Todd Wilcher is the Director of Residential and Outreach Services at Covenant House in Atlanta.  He said having a more accurate count of homeless young people will help agencies like Covenant House receive more funding to provide more services for kids.

Mr. Todd, as the Covenant House kids know him, was like a strict but fun uncle to these kids.  He was quick to remind them to take off their hats when inside or pull their pants up.  But he doesn’t miss an opportunity to teach them things they might not get somewhere else.

Today’s lesson: jazz music.  After pulling the van out of the Covenant House parking lot, he tunes the radio to a jazz station.

“Riding through the city, listening to jazz—that’s how I roll,” Wilcher told the kids.  “Jazz is the music of the city.”

“There’s no words,” Larry complained.

“Sometimes words get in the way,” Wilcher responded.  “Jazz frees your mind.”

The long van negotiated the crowded streets, making wide swings around the tight corners.  Wilcher held a piece of paper in his right hand with a list of locations.  The first stop was a soup kitchen in a church basement but the survey team was running late.  Finding parking for a van that large is no easy task in the city.

Wilcher, however, wasn’t concerned with the time.

“It’s alright,” he said as he eased the van into a spot near the church.  “Our hearts are in the right place.”

The team didn’t find any young people in the soup kitchen.  They weren’t surprised.  Homeless kids aren’t usually found where homeless adults are, and with good reason.  Young people face an increased risk of physical and sexual abuse when staying in adult homeless shelters, according to Covenant House.

The team had more success at their next stop, a downtown library.  There, sitting at public computers surfing the Internet, were the first clear signs of Atlanta’s homeless youth problem.  The team spread out—there were plenty of kids to talk to—and began approaching the young people they thought were homeless.

Most of the kids the survey team talked with were a lot like Mary.  They didn’t stand out.  They looked like normal teenagers.  Sitting across from them in the mall food court or at the library, there was nothing to give away their status.  But the survey team was adept at spotting them.

The Covenant House kids began by asking if their subjects were 24 or younger.  If yes, the surveyor asked them where they had slept the night before.  Sometimes they came right out and asked the kids if they were homeless.  They always seemed to know whom to talk to and how.  They spoke the language.  It was no accident that teams of homeless youth were recruited for this job.  With a gentle approach they were able to bond with other homeless kids.

They bowed their heads together in quiet conversation while they ran through the questions.  Their body language spoke to the level of intimacy involved.  They stood close together, turned partly toward each other as they spoke in hushed, private voices.  Both the surveyor and subject often appeared ready to hug at any moment, as if it were the only way to express the emotions in their shared plight.  There was an understanding between them.

On the street outside the library, they found more kids.  In the mall down the street, even more.  The survey team was on a roll, interviewing dozens of young people.  The team worked late into the night, changing locations as the day flew by.

“Anecdotally, we received at least 500 surveys,” said project coordinator Pete Colbenson, who adds it’s too early to know the numbers.  A statewide census of all homeless people done by shelters and programs is expected to provide further data.

A Kennesaw State University math professor will crunch the numbers and a report will be published in May by the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.  For the first time, activists and administrators will have a picture of Georgia’s homeless youth.

Their success is a double-edged sword.  By finding more kids in need of help they are in a better position to offer help.  But every kid they find means is another young person living on the street alone and vulnerable, or couch-surfing with friends and acquaintances; another kid in danger of losing the way permanently.

Mary, three weeks in to her new reality away from her home and family, is still confident.  She dropped out of college before coming to Atlanta but she doesn’t fear what the future holds.

“I had a scholarship before.  I’ll get in again,” she said.

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