Hope and a haven for a neglected population – homeless teenagers

A group of formerly homeless young people are helping kids now out on the streets – and this week facing bitterly cold weather.

homeless youth peer counselors

Four peer counselors at the new homeless youth drop-in center plot strategy. Left to right: Nick Jones, Luther Thompson, Nadja Bentley-Hammond and Shawn Toyer.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

It’s called “survival sex” and it’s one of the many risky practices and degrading experiences endured by homeless youth – a desperately under-served population in Baltimore.

“You’re lost and you don’t know where to go,” explains Shawn Toyer, now 28, who was out on the streets as a teenager. “Or who to trust. Or how to stay afloat.

“It’s out on the streets that you learn very soon that nothing’s for free,” he solemnly adds. That includes prostitution.

On any given day, at least 640 young people between the ages of 14 and 25 are homeless and on their own, according to a 2011 census conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

According to a survey by the National Runaway Switchboard, 1 out of 3 runaways are forced to engage in survival sex in order to meet their basic needs within 72 hours of hitting the streets.

Minimum Resources

Given that homeless youth and runaways comprise about 15% of Baltimore’s estimated 4,100 homeless, advocates note, there is a surprising dearth of  public resources available for them.

For example, there are 815 shelter beds (private and public) for homeless adult men and women, and an additional 187 beds for women with young children.

For unaccompanied homeless youth under 18, there are a grand total of 15 beds.

Barred from the adult shelters, homeless under 18 have the option of the eight-bed Loving Arms shelter in Northwest Baltimore or a seven-bed shelter on Rose St. in East Baltimore.

When conditions become desperate – such as during this week’s subfreezing weather – kids on the street resort to desperate measures, including  stealing, feigning illness or trading sex for adult protection.

“I had to pose as an alcoholic to get into the homeless shelter,” said Luther Thompson, 24, of his homeless days.

To try to break this vicious cycle of despair and often self-destructive behavior, Thompson and Toyer have become active as peer counselors in the first homeless youth “drop-in” center, which has opened at 2315 North Charles St.

The center was established by Youth Empowered Society (YES), a group of “youth leaders” with direct experience of homelessness.

YES director Lara Law and homeless advocate Davon Ferguson stand outside the new drop-in center on Charles St. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

YES director Lara Law and homeless advocate Davon Ferguson stand outside the drop-in center on Charles St. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The group identified a comprehensive, one-stop center for homeless teens as the greatest need for the population. Last year, YES and Fusion Partnership received a $105,000 federal grant to set up the center to provide clothing, food, laundry services and free transportation for youth without permanent homes.

A Ready Ear

The center does not provide overnight shelter, but assigns peer counselors to those walking through the door. The counselors explain what resources are available to find transitional housing or a job, and how to apply for such basic items as a birth certificate.

Most importantly, according to Toyer, the counselors provide a ready ear. “Our vision is to break the chain of dependency and abuse by empowering youth not just to get back on their feet, but to learn how to reach beyond.”

The reasons for homelessness vary widely. Some kids are ostracized by their families because they are gay, lesbian or undergoing a sex change. Others are pregnant. Still others are kicked out because of substance abuse.

But family instability is at the root of much homelessness.

Parents suffer from drug addiction or are arrested and go to jail. Teenagers fight with their step-parents or other relatives. Many are fleeing physical or sexual abuse. Or children are in foster homes, where they never felt wanted, and are encouraged to leave as soon as they turn 18.

“Too Many Think This is all They Have”

Nadja Bentley-Hammond, now 23, said she was adopted at age 15 and put out of her home at 17.

“No one plans to be homeless,” she says bluntly. As a peer counselor at the YES Center, she tries to build up confidence and encourage a client to think about the future.

“We want to teach them how to fish, how to see a way out of this. Too many [homeless] think this is all they have,” she said.

According to YES director Lara Law, the drop-in center welcomes donations from the public, including non-perishable, high-protein snacks and food.

The center also gladly accepts volunteers of all ages and cash donations to further its activities, which include plans for a permanent youth shelter on the premises.

The new facility operates between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and by appointment on Fridays.

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  • Jed Weeks

    Another great OSI-Baltimore Community Fellow!

    • baltimorebrew

      Lara Law is a fellow at the Open Society Institute (OSI). Other private groups supporting the YES drop-in center include the Krieger Fund, Fund for Change, United Way, Youth As Resources and Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

  • Cham Green

    The reason the homicide total is up for 2012 is because an astonishing 22 of the victims are between the ages of 18-19, up from 10 in 2011.  Already in 2013 there have been 3 teens murdered.  Most of these kids are homeless or near-homeless.   

  • matselde

    This is not a good sign that in big cities like Baltimore, there are so many homeless
    young people, young mothers, unemployed etc. Good that there are rich people in Baltimore that want to share and give money for help or soup kitchens. God praise them.
    Let us hope that the economic situation will not get worse in the States. It is time that the very rich will pay more taxes as Obama proposes. I am also glad that a law has been accepted for medical help.

  • Joshua Reynolds

    Good work. Keep it up. 

  • ushanellore

    Education of this population, job training and placement in jobs are challenges.  Truancy is common as is drug addiction in this group.  Sometimes these teens attend school because that is the only place they can get some food to eat.  Their nutrition suffers and so does their capacity to learn useful skills and their memory and cognitive abilities.  These teens are anxiety ridden with a vagrant lifestyle they cannot help.  It is horrible we have so many of them now in urban areas across the land.  They are great targets for violent gangs wherein they can form blood brotherhoods–by blood, I mean literally a brotherhood inscribed in blood with the mayhem and the murders they agree to commit for their initiation into and their commitment to the gangs.  Obviously the services available are not adequate to the task of meeting the needs of the homeless teens.  The drop in center activists are angels.    

  • ushanellore

    Many of these kids are not homeless out of choice or because their home life is worse.  While some are runaways, many are homeless because no one will have them after their parents have died.  Among this population parents have a high incidence diabetes and other chronic diseases.  Parents do not have ready access to drug rehab centers to get themselves cleaned up.  Parents do not have financial or emotional help.  The children are victims of a torn social fabric.  They see the inadequacies of their parents, they sense the helplessness and they leave voluntarily to reduce the burden on the home, the family or the caretaker parent.  How much worse the home life?  No.  How much worse the society for tolerating this situation.  

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