Homeless youth: A crisis we choose not to see

Moderated by Rick Badie

They hide in plain view, yet many of us don’t acknowledge their existence: homeless youth. On any given night, hundreds of teens — many turned away by their parents or guardians because they came out of the closet — sleep on Atlanta’s streets and alleys and bunk in abandoned buildings. Today’s guest writers explore a growing problem in the region and solicit your help to serve this sector of our community. (Photo: Tyler Perry visits Young People Matter, an emergency shelter in Atlanta for homeless young people.)

Homeless youth in plain view

By Simone Joye

Kids tweeted him non-stop for nearly a week. He viewed my news segment with urgent pleas to help keep our youth shelter’s doors open. Afterwards, media mogul Tyler Perry called and asked, “What do you need?” We asked him to come visit. He replied, “I’ll be there within an hour.” He listened and shared with our kids. He encouraged them to never give up their dreams.

He also asked, “What do you need?” He was told $45,000. He wrote a check payable to Young People Matter (YPM), an organization I founded seven years ago, saving us with his birthday gift for 45 years of life and our largest individual contribution to date.

YPM serves as one of only three Atlanta emergency shelters for homeless, runaway, sexually exploited and other youth under 18. We are in crisis mode as we await the fate a three-year grant renewal from the federal government.

The kids we serve are described in a report by the Atlanta Foundation as “hidden in plain view.” They’re victims of child neglect. They have grown up in dysfunctional homes with rampant abuse. They have parents who are deceased or incarcerated. They are kicked out or forced to run away simply because they are gay or became pregnant. They sleep in abandoned houses, motels, on MARTA, under bridges, in our parks and on sidewalks.

They age out of foster care with no viable address. They are your neighbor’s kids. They are your children’s friends who visit your home often, especially during meal times. They could be your own children who are vulnerable to strangers simply because they are not receiving your attention, or their Internet use is not being monitored. They are unwanted pregnancies. They hold in dark secrets until they can’t take it anymore.

They stay under our radar. They may be teens in a homeless family, but unfortunately, they are not allowed in Atlanta’s family shelters. They are white, black and Latino and come from all socio-economic backgrounds. They are lonely, scared, mentally scarred and bullied. They are kidnapped. Many commit suicide. Some are murdered.

A plethora of pimps, pedophiles, sexual offenders and traffickers prey on them. Kids cling to them as saviors until they wake up from being drugged to find themselves handcuffed in a motel room with men (and women) violating their innocence.

Predators are highly successful in Atlanta because they know we possess a weak infrastructure for helping kids. It is a reason we have one of the largest sex trafficking networks in the nation. When youth are rescued, one vital component is missing: housing.

On any given night, it is estimated 2,500 children are without a home in Atlanta. We have only 19 crisis beds for those under 18. Seven of those, we operate at YPM; we are the only shelter for girls under 18.

Since 2011, we have served more than 2,000 youths with overnight, drop-in and street outreach services. Most are self-referred; others we find on the streets. Child welfare centers, courts, law enforcement, schools, parents/families and good Samaritans refer the rest.

Were it not for us, they could possibly be the kid who ends up committing an armed robbery or taking a life just to get a meal, coat or money to rent a motel room. The cost to serve youth through the child welfare or juvenile justice systems ranges from $25,000 to $55,000 per individual; at emergency youth shelters, nationwide, between $700 to $1,200.

With Perry’s help, funding is trickling in to our GoFundMe account. Right now, we have enough to keep our doors open through mid-January. We are in need of foundation support, corporate support, individuals and other celebrities. We are also in need of more board members and staff to reflect the youth we serve. Let us join together in doing good for them.

No longer can Atlanta say, “I had no idea.”

Simone Joye is executive director of Young People Matter.

Help homeless LGBTQ youth

By Rick Westbrook

A few weeks ago, a remarkable 19-year-old Kennesaw youth had the foresight to press “record” as his family began a “Pray the Gay Away” intervention. He had come out of the closet as being gay nearly a year earlier. One of his good friends posted the video to YouTube.

That first night, I shared it from Lost-n-Found Youth’s Facebook page. A week later, the video had been seen by more than 6 million viewers. It was clear the spotlight had finally started to shine on one of the most important issues of a generation: There are too many well-intentioned, faithful parents who see no other option than to disown their children and put them on the street because their offspring tell them they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Atlanta is quickly becoming ground zero for the LGBTQ youth homelessness problem in America. It’s simply unacceptable. Census data estimates there are about 2,000 homeless youth in metro Atlanta on any given night. A recent Williams Institute national survey of homeless agencies that serve youth found 30 percent of their clients identified as gay or lesbian; 9 percent, as bisexual, and 1 percent, as transgender. Just a little math will tell you it translates to at least 750 queer kids on the streets of our city each night.

Nearly three years ago, I and others in the LGBTQ community set out to address our LGBTQ homeless young people by launching Lost-n-Found Youth. Today, we’re Atlanta’s only agency to hit the streets, finding the youngest and most vulnerable members of our community — those who have been marginalized by the people closest in their lives. We strive to stabilize their lives and connect them with resources to help them go on to be productive members of society.

Of the youth clients we serve, 53 percent tell us they were kicked out of their homes because they came out of the closet. Sadly, religious beliefs of parents are often the source of the problem. I question the morality of any parent who thinks their child is better off living in squalor or, worse, dying on the streets because of the way they were born.

We as a LGBTQ community are not without fault. As we think nothing of writing a check to fund equality, we’re blind to the tragedy in our backyards. Each time the gay community achieves a significant milestone for equality, our homeless youth outreach numbers surge. It’s a manifestation of secondary responses of parents who are unwilling or unable to cope with a gay or lesbian child.Now that the issue is just starting to be seen for what it is — a crisis in America — people pay attention. With help from the community and corporate support, Lost-n-Found Youth continues to grow and serve youths who need us most. In three short years, we’ve served more than 400 youth; some have already transitioned out of our program and enrolled in Ivy League universities. There is no doubt they will do great things in the future.

We’re in the middle of a $1 million capital campaign that will triple the capacity of our transitional housing program and serve even more youth. Situated in the heart of Midtown, we will be even closer to places where we find most of our clients.

To fulfill our mission, we need support from volunteers and donors. Community support goes to improving outreach services, our youth center and the renovation of our transitional housing project. More information is on our website, www.lost-n-found.org. Our goals are within reach, but only when the community comes together to help.

Rick Westbrook is executive director of Lost-n-Found Youth.


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