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Homeless youth invisible in Southern Arizona

Teri’s mom left her homeless when she was 14 years old. Since then, she has always carried cereal and an extra pair of clothes everywhere she goes in anticipation of sleeping somewhere new. Photo by Brittan Bates/Arizona Sonora Service

They are the hidden ones living under a different roof each week.

By no fault of their own, they are outcasts without a home. They are teens missing football games and school dances to work extra shifts to pay for another meal. They are poor and battling the world alone.

“Homeless youth, is one of those things that sort of perplexes people,” said Kristyn Conner, director of development at Youth On Their Own, a dropout prevention program in Tucson. “It is out of sight and out of mind. With adult homelessness, you can see it. But with homeless youth, it is different because they aren’t actually living on the streets as much as their adult counterparts.”

In its most recent report, the state Department of Education reported 28,391 enrolled homeless children and youth in grades pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. This number ranks Arizona in the top five worst states having homeless youth. However, this number does not include homeless youth not enrolled in school.

National Center for Homeless Education’s graph of homeless youth in Arizona.

Of those thousands, 65 percent live with friends or family, 27.7 percent live in shelters or are awaiting foster care, 4.7 percent live in hotels and motels and 2.6 percent live unsheltered in cars, parks and abandoned buildings the report said.

In the 6th grade, Javier said authorities deported his mother under Arizona’s SB 1070 law that removed thousands of undocumented citizens from America in 2010. He moved to Tucson to live with his father, who was deported several months later. Javier spent the next several years hoping from one friend or relative’s couch every few weeks.

“I would stay at each distant relative’s home until finances appeared tight,” he said.

He found a stable home with his brother for a few months, but his brother decided to move out of state.

While Javier was separated from his parents by law, some children are abandoned or find themselves with parent’s unfit to be a mother or father.

“At the end of the day, most of the reasons can be traced back to poverty,” Conner said. “Big, low-income families can have parents who decide they don’t want to parent anymore and kick the oldest one out because they can get a job and take care of themselves. But, that 16-year-old can’t take care of his or herself.”

Sabrina said she was in the 7th grade when she came home from school one day to find her mother ran off with her abusive boyfriend, the same way Sabrina’s father had left them years before. After months of searching for her mother, Sabrina’s already struggling aunt opened her home to her.

What is most unsettling about the lives of homeless youth, are their unclear futures. By just struggling to survive each day, homeless teens isolate themselves, miss class and get bad grades, if not dropping out of school all together.

Conner said what you hear most in the media and from others are the unsuccessful stories of homeless teens.

“Homeless teens who grow up and become homeless adults,” Conner said.

Youth On Their Own strives to break down the barriers between education and the 5,600 homeless youth in Pima County.

In their 30 years in operation, Youth On Their Own has helped over 17,000 teenagers receive high school diplomas.

Garret said he was raised by a crystal meth-addicted mother who would beat him on her bad days and act like the picture perfect mother on her good ones. The Department of Children Safety shipped him to foster care, where he stayed for five years. His grandmother, who was on a fixed income, finally allowed him to live with her.

When he entered middle school, his grades were well below average and he didn’t have food or school supplies. Youth On Their Own accepted Garret into its program.

The organization offers students an expense program that allows them to earn a monthly stipend of up to $140 in exchange for passing grades, a basic needs program where they can pick out household items and a guidance program, Conner said.

Now in high school, Garret’s grades are at A and B average. He is on track to graduate and he made the final cut on his school’s basketball team. 

“You can’t go anywhere without seeing one of those future success stories,” Conner said. “Whether it is the bank teller depositing your paycheck, the doctor taking your temperature at the doctor’s office or the teacher, teaching your kids in school. All of these people went through our program and were a hidden homeless teen.”

Brittan Bates is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at brittanbates@email.arizona.edu.

 

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