Homeless youth: Beyond shelter

Moderated by Rick Badie

For Atlanta’s homeless youth, more is needed than simply a place to stay. In our lead column, executives from two of the city’s leading charity organizations write about the services they provide “unaccompanied youth” on our streets and seek more community input to address a growing population. The second column highlights a consortium that gives Liberian college students access to universities, colleges and schools in our state.

Helping the invisible: Homeless youth

By Kathy Colbenson, Allison Ashe

There is an invisible crisis in our community – youth homelessness. Once you learn to see it, the stories are shockingly common.

Angie was abused at an early age. She grew up in foster care and at 17 was placed with an adoptive family – until she became pregnant. Then the adoption “fell through,” and Angie was sent to a group home with no treatment for her trauma. She ran away and gave birth to her baby boy while homeless. Her “boyfriend” was soon selling her so she could pay for food and shelter.

Heather’s first memory of sexual abuse was at 6. She endured the abuse for eight more years until she ran away. No one reported her missing; she spent the next four years trafficked and abused on the streets.

Then there’s Barry, kicked out of his foster home when he was found out to be gay. And boys like Timothy are too numerous to count: They grow up in family shelters with their mothers and are forced onto the street at age 17 because, as males, they are perceived as a risk to women in the program.

The national statistics are daunting.

A 2014 study found 34 percent of the homeless population is under 24. Of youth who reported being victims of trafficking, 48 percent said their first experience was due to seeking shelter, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Up to 35 percent of homeless young people were formerly in foster care, and up to 40 percent of homeless teens identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Eighty percent of homeless youth use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. Up to 40 percent of homeless youth report sexual abuse, compared to 3 percent of the general youth population. Up to 60 percent have experienced physical abuse.

LGBT homeless youth are victims of 7.4 times more acts of sexual violence than non-LGBT youth; 46 percent of LGBT teens report family rejection as a significant factor in their homelessness. Half of homeless youth do not finish high school, and 20 percent become pregnant . Finally, more than 5,000 homeless youth die yearly because of assault, illness or suicide.

At CHRIS Kids and Covenant House, we work for “unaccompanied” youth – a term that really means homeless and alone. In 2000, CHRIS Kids began providing services for homeless young people with targeted outreach to LGBT youth. Covenant House opened a drop-in center for homeless teens in downtown Atlanta.Since then, our organizations have expanded, but it’s a challenge to keep pace with demand. Last year, our programs served 1,552 homeless youth, reached 1,301 teens on the street , and provided crisis shelter to 388 youth and housing to 152 more. Between us, we have 51 crisis beds, 88 permanent supportive housing beds, and nine apartments for parenting youth and their children.

Our beds are always full. Recently, a new organization, Lost and Found, opened its doors to serve LGBT homeless teens. Their beds are full as well.

What our homeless youth most need is a safe place to live and counseling and services to help them develop skills to be self-sufficient, healthy and employed. The community can work to increase awareness of this and advocate for funding that targets help for these kids so that they can turn their lives around — because they do, when we help them. We also need to conduct a targeted youth homeless count using a proven model.

Many of these steps are called for in an updated national action plan from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness: “Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.” You can find it here: http://usich.gov/opening_doors.

Programs like CHRIS Kids and Covenant House are the last barrier between a youth in crisis and homelessness, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, victimization, criminal justice involvement, chronic homelessness and even death. We need the community’s support to address this crisis. For information, please go to chriskids.org and covenanthousega.org.

Kathy Colbenson is chief executive officer of CHRIS Kids. Allison Ashe is executive director of Covenant House Georgia.

Georgia schools reach out to Liberia

By Cynthia L. Blandford

Education will continue to be a key priority of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s post-Ebola recovery strategy. The University Consortium for Liberia initiative was launched in June 2009, by the Honorary Consul General Liberian Consulate in Atlanta supported by the Liberian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

In late 2014, the consortium was approved as a non-profit organization that will work with government and our partners to provide scholarships and support for students to study abroad. It also will participate in service learning and student exchange programs. That includes opportunities for research and faculty development and collaboration between international colleges and universities.

Twenty-one colleges and universities are partners in the consortium. Our vision is to help provide brighter futures through education and understanding.The consortium is excited to announce that our partners have been very supportive in the rebuilding of Liberia over the past few years. Recently, the Georgia Institute of Technology signed a Memorandum of Understanding with LibTelCo and the Ministry of TelePost and Communications to provide a Center of Excellence in Communications in Liberia, as well as training, capacity building and support.

It is anticipated an ICT Conference will be held in Monrovia this December. Alabama State University signed a memorandum a few weeks ago to provide service training, study abroad and exchange programs for its students to study at the University of Liberia and for consortium students to study at ASU.

Savannah State and Clark Atlanta universities have offered academic scholarships in chemistry and social work to three Liberian students. Tuskegee University sent students to A.M.E. University in Liberia last year for a study abroad program. The Carter Presidential Center provides mental health training and Ebola-related programs, and Emory University has also been supportive through Ebola awareness and engagement.

Moreover, I was pleased when our partner, Georgia Gwinnett College, invited the Liberian ambassador to the United States, H.E. Jeremiah Sulunteh, to be this year’s commencement speaker. In collaboration with the University of Liberia and the Ministry of Agriculture, the University of Georgia is exploring a model poultry production program in Liberia with a focus on women’s empowerment and a 4-H Youth program.

Kennesaw State University is focused on culinary and hospitality careers, to name a few. Morehouse College is exploring a Leadership Academy at UL, and Morehouse School of Medicine is considering a collaborative health initiative with the Ministry of Education and Health.

In recent years, Liberia has compiled a proud list of accomplishments that include President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – the first elected female head of state in Africa and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. With more than 10 years of peace, an educated workforce will become more important than ever before. And because of this priority, this fall 2015, Liberia will join the consortium in Georgia to celebrate and advance education in grand fashion.

We are pleased to invite our partners, stakeholders and friends to join us Sept. 26 on the campus of Emory University for our inaugural fundraising event. We will also be honoring outstanding educational institutions and businesses that have given service to Liberia this past year.

With the support of the consortium honorary chair, Savannah State University President Cheryl Dozier for the next two years, we are excited about her leadership and look forward to great things to come. Dozier and her faculty met with President Sirleaf in Monrovia to discuss their homeland security and marine sciences interests with the University of Liberia and the government of Liberia.

This spectacular gala experience will boast traditional cultures, delicious culinary displays and fashion spectacles. The mission and focus of the consortium will lead to the development of an educated and trained workforce that is vital to the continued strides the country has made.

For more information regarding this event, please call 404-565-1154 or e-mail cblandford@UCLiberia.com. Also, visit our website at www.UCLiberia.com for further details.

Cynthia L. Blandford is president, CEO and board chair of of the University Consortium for Liberia.

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