The Young and the Homeless: Teens Face Hard Choices, Living in Cars and Couch-surfing with Friends
April 2, 2003Just about any parent of a teenager knows there‘s a problem with homeless youth in Northern Michigan. Your own kids may bring friends home to stay for the night on a couch after they‘ve been “kicked out“ of their homes. For some of these teens, “couchsurfing“ becomes a way of life for months at a time.
Teenage homelessness is one of the most difficult problems for local human service agencies to approach because adolescence is a difficult time of life that tends to come with strings attached such as drugs, alcohol and obnoxious behavior. The Goodwill Inn in Traverse City, for instance, accepts teens reluctantly because of the problems they may cause families at the homeless shelter. And because the teens may become influenced in a bad way there by adults dealing with substance abuse problems of their own.
But with several hundred homeless teens living in Northern Michigan at any given time, it‘s a problem that local social agencies are trying to address with plans for a new teen shelter.
“If you look at other communities around the state, they have youth homes and shelters, but we dont have one anywhere in Northern Michigan. The closest one is in Marquette,“ notes Jean Peltola, a counselor and coordinator for the Students in Transition Empowerment Program (STEP) at Traverse City‘s alternative ed high school.
“There‘s a sizeable population of throwaway kids in the region,“ adds Annette Marquis, Executive Director of the Third Level crisis center in Traverse City. “We know of some cases where they‘ve been out on their own for a year or two and realize they‘re not making it and have to find something else.“
Peltola and Marquis are part of a Homeless Youth Initiative to get an emergency shelter established for teens in Traverse City, followed by a transitional home where teens could stay for up to a year.
Homeless teens are generally in the 16-18 age range, Peltola says. “We go up to 19 with the teens we help because so often what I see is these are youth who don‘t have a good adult model to follow.“
“Homeless teens often don‘t have the maturity or skills to find a job and may be pregnant or have an infant,“ Marquis adds.
In fact, at Traverse City‘s alternative ed school, there‘s a pregnant teen and parenting program which serves over 30 young women. “They tend to be very transient and may not have a place to live,“ Peltola notes.
The Homeless Youth Initiative hopes to turn some of those problems around.
“We want a full continuum of services, starting with an emergency shelter for minors,“ Marquis says. “This wouldn‘t be for long-term living -- we‘re looking at a place for the kids who has just run away or been kicked out of the house. A primary goal would be to return them to their home.“
The emergency shelter might have 5-8 beds as a starting point, depending on the amount of need. It would require 24-hour supervision, and one of its functions would be teaching homeless youth how to get their lives back in order.
Beyond that, Peltola and Marquis‘ wish list includes a transitional home where homeless teens who don‘t mesh with the foster care system could live. Currently, there‘s a host home program in the area, which runs almost like a student-exchange program, with homeless kids required to follow the rules of their hosts; but it‘s a stop-gap measure which doesn‘t quite fill the need.
Finding funding for an emergency shelter is a problem. The Initiative has applied to the local United Way for funding, and is also hopeful of being included in Goodwill Industries plans for a new homeless shelter, but nothing‘s nailed down yet.
“A lot of it is going to depend on the community rising up and saying they see this as a problem we need to solve,“ Marquis says.
First, the community needs to understand that many homeless teens are victims of bad situations at home, and not just “bad kids.“
“There are a lot of myths about teen homelessness,“ Peltola says. “So many people think these are kids who‘ve run away from home or are defiant. But we see more kids who‘ve left for legitimate reasons -- because their home is not safe, or they‘ve been abandoned.“
What they Say: Voices from the Street
The following interviews are with homeless students who are completing their educations at Traverse City High School, an alternative education program that serves about 190 youth who don‘t fit into other educational schemes. A common theme in the interviews is a breakdown in the parenting process -- both with listening skills and discipline -- which led to teens going out of control with drugs, alcohol and leaving home.
Justin Flowers, 18
Justin Flowers has had a rough time of it from the get-go. “I went into foster care when I was three years old,“ he says. “My parents were both neglected themselves and both alcoholics. There was a lot of abuse in the house and I went to a lot of foster homes through the years -- probably in every county in Northern Michigan.“
But things are looking up for Flowers, who has found help through the system with both a place to live and a job. He‘s presently completing high school and working at a fast food restaurant. He also works part-time as a street outreach worker with the Third Level crisis center, helping other homeless youth to locate resources such as food pantries and places to stay. And he‘s also found a place to stay for $300 a month, sharing a house with four adults, ages 30-40, with a group kitchen and bathroom.
His newfound independence is a happy ending for a difficult childhood. When he was 16, for instance, Flowers says he blew the whistle on a foster care home in Benzie County which he felt was mistreating the kids in its care.
“When I was at a foster home in Benzie County, all we ate for a week was one potato each night -- just one potato. And I had to call (the authorities) because I was getting weak. I wasn‘t eating right and it was getting so I couldn‘t walk.“
He says by that age, he was aware of how much money foster care families received for the care of kids, but didn‘t see it in action. Flowers says that money for food, clothing and allowances wasn‘t forthcoming in the home.
“I knew my foster parents were spending a lot of money they didn‘t have,“ he says. “They‘d buy a candy bar for their own kids, but you couldn‘t have one. There was no allowance and I went ot bed hungry; I was a growing boy and I needed food.“
He was transferred to an adult foster home in Traverse City, but things didn‘t work out. Flowers couldn‘t adapt to the strict discipline and curfews at the home and says that the rate of $652 per month was overwhelming.
“I ended up living with friends -- I became what we call couchsurfers, from friend to friend to friend. It got really hard. When you‘re homeless, you don‘t know where your next meal will come from; you don‘t know where your next bed will be. School suffered, because if the friend you‘re staying with doesn‘t want to go to school, you don‘t go either.“
Homeless teens are filled with anxiety, Flowers says.
“It‘s a constant, constant, constant worry. You always worry where your next meal or bed is coming from. You also have a feeling of loneliness all the time because you don‘t have your parents or a place to come home to. It brings on a lot of anxiety.“
Flowers and his father got back in touch when he was 16 and have been working on their relationship. “My dad is just now coming around,“ he says. “I told him at 16 that I was gay, and that was hard for him. I‘ve come around to the realization over the last year and a half that I don‘t care -- I‘m who I am, and I‘m proud of whom I am.“
Flowers has also had a boost in self-esteem by working with Third Level, first as a volunteer, and now at a minimum wage. As a street outreach worker, he has a keen insight into the problems homeless teens face, and offers good advice at the street level on how to get help. Recently, he and co-workers threw a concert at the local K of C hall to benefit homeless teens, with performances by Indulge and Souldiers. Kids brought toiletry items for homeless teens as an admission donation.
Like all of the other homeless teens interviewed, Flowers is looking forward to going to college. “I want to go into human services as a major and get a minor in business,“ he says. “I want to work with people when I graduate.“
Kitty moved to Traverse City from another Northern Michigan community shortly after her 17th birthday in January after problems with her single mother became overwhelming.
Kitty‘s parents divorced when she was three months old. She says her mother‘s third husband was a frightening alcoholic who‘d been charged with drunk driving and four counts of endangering a child. She skipped the eighth grade because of problems at home and in school.
“When I was 13, I bought a bus ticket to go to Vegas to live with a guy I met on the internet from California,“ she says. “I was in trouble in school and with drugs -- the kids called me a slut.“
Her bus trip was discovered before she left and Kitty was sent to a detention center for teens. She was in the Arbor Heights Reintegration Center and then went to live at a home in Ann Arbor for 10 months.
“I didn‘t want to be at my mom‘s house with her husband‘s criminal record,“ she recalls. “My mom blames their divorce on me (the marriage lasted eight months), even though he was selling her stuff and hitting her. I had these ripped jeans on and she said I wore them on purpose to attact his attention.
“My cousin is a police officer, and he got the guy out of the house,“ she adds.
Three days after Kitty returned home, her sister died in an auto accident.
“I stopped partying when my sister died,“ she says. “I realized it was time to grow up. I always thought that school was important. I smoke cigarettes, but I don‘t do any drugs. I drink a couple times a year, but I don‘t get shit-faced like some kids.“
Kitty missed so many days at school that she dropped out in the 11th grade. She attended summer school to make up last year, however, and is now enrolled in the 12th grade at Traverse City‘s alternative ed high school.
Her mother married her fourth husband last year, and their relationship is still difficult. “I think my mom sees me as in the way of her adult life and her dating. The littlest thing upsets her -- she screams really loud, ‘leave me alone!‘ when she has an argument with her husband, and she‘ll go in her roomo and turn the volume on her music up really loud.“
She feels that a major problem between herself and her mother was a lack of communication. “My mom always said ‘I‘m busy‘ when I wanted to talk. She was always working on stuff from her job -- I had to set up an appointment to talk.“
Kitty didn‘t like the “stupid rules“ at home, such as no phone after midnight. As with other teens interviewed, the choices she makes aren‘t those which most adults would consider sensible when facing homelessness. When she was told she had to leave her mother‘s home, for instance, she spent $40 of the $57 she had to get her cat neutered. The sale of some jewelry provided her with enough money to buy gas to get to Traverse City and buy a little food.
The mother of a friend in Traverse City said she could move into their home with her dog and three cats. Presently, Kitty has applied to Northwestern Michigan College and is happy to note that she will be receiving student aid. She hopes to get a job and her own apartment this summer. “I want to become an animal cruelty investigator and a psychologist in a dual career,“ she says. “I know I won‘t make that much money, but I want a job that makes a difference in the world.“
“I got kicked out of my house last January when I turned 15,“ says A.J., who has spent the past year and three months homeless.
A.J. spent three months living with a girl friend and working as a secretarial assistant. She then spent five months living with her 19-year-old boyfriend and another two months living with another girl she knows. “I‘m living at my boyfriend‘s house now and his mom‘s taking guardianship of me,“ she says. “Technically, I‘m still a runaway.“
A.J. has worked at McDonald‘s and at a kennel over the past year, and is now enrolled in the alternative ed school.
“Three months after I got kicked out of the house, my parents asked me to return and I refused because of how they treated me,“ she says. “My mom didn‘t really connect with me -- I was abused physically, mentally and verbally.“
Part of the breakdown was due to the fact that at the age of 15, she was involved with “a really older guy.“ Her current boyfriend is 18 and the home she lives in is operating under difficult circumstances with little money to spare. Her boyfriend‘s mother recently lost her job and his father got through the winter doing part-time work shoveling driveways.
A.J.‘s parents are divorced. “I don‘t know if that has anything to do with it, but a lot of kids at this school are from dysfunctional families,“ she says of alternative ed.
Later, she notes that parental absence from the home, a lack of communication, and bad role models contribute to drug problems among teens at the school.
“Our families started us doing drugs. My parents drank a lot and smoked marijuana on the hour. Where I‘m at now, I don‘t think I want to be involved with drugs.“ She says an exception might be to get together with friends to share a bottle of wine at Christmas.
Despite having missed nine weeks of school at the beginning of the year, A.J. says the alternative ed program has got her back on track and she hopesto graduate a year early. “Everyone in this school, even if they were forced to go here at first, is here by their own will. The teachers here may be the first adults we‘ve met who really care.“
She is looking forward to going to college. “I want to be either a teacher for art or for grade school.“
Dan Hoffmann, 18
Dan Hoffmann got kicked out of his home after striking his father in the back of the head two years ago during an argument on homecoming night. Hoffmann wanted to stay at a friend‘s home that evening and his father said no, prompting the outburst. He spent 13 days in jail for the attack.
“I didn‘t go home, I was put in foster care for four or five months,“ he says, adding that initially, he had a good experience at the home near Mayfield.
Unfortunately, Hoffmann has had some substance abuse issues which he still seems to regard lightly.
“My foster mom went on vacation and I had the house to myself for the weekend,“ he recalls. “That night I threw a party and got wasted and got kicked out of foster care.“
Thereafter, he was homeless, and plunged into the teen party circuit. “I was going to parties, getting drunk and high. I got knocked out a few times.
“I stayed in a car for a couple of weeks,“ he adds. “It was cold, and I got really sick one time. Sometimes you jsut stayed up all night, drinking and smoking pot at friends‘ houses. People I‘d just met earlier in the day would say, come drink with me, and I‘d say, okay.“
Hoffmann pawned everything he owned and was on the streets for about two months before landing a spot at the Goodwill Inn for the homeless.
Today, he says he‘s getting along with his father and has found a new place to stay through the help of local social workers. He‘s developed an interest in law enforcement and is taking a student police academy class through Traverse City‘s alternative ed. program.