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Church provides hope for homeless teens

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Imagine leaving high school for the day and having no place to go until the next morning when school resumes.

How do you keep your body clean or your hair shampooed when you have no access to a private sink, much less a bathroom?  You don’t even have soap or shampoo.  You don’t have money to buy a toothbrush or toothpaste. How do you keep the clothes on your back washed?  Where do you find food in the hours between school’s end and beginning?  Where do you lie down safely to sleep at night? And the long weekend is an even more terrifying time span to search for the basics to keep you going.  And now the cold winter weather has come.  But you don’t want your friends and classmates to realize that you are homeless.  So you ignore the pangs of hunger and try pathetically to maintain some standard of personal cleanliness wherever you can find water available to you. Even the word “homeless” is frightening.  Especially to a 16 or 17 year old girl or boy. 

When you are homeless, you find shelter at night wherever you can.  Abandoned buildings have often had electricity cut off.  So they can be frighteningly “pitch black” at night.  And they may be totally without heat and air conditioning.  So the empty space varies from alternately frigid to sweltering, depending on the extremes of our Denton County weather.  But, it is a roof over your head to keep out the rain and wind and some protection from the cold.  And possibly the abandoned building has window screenings and protects you from flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, rats, and varmints – or maybe not.  The key element is safety.  Both isolated boys and girls are subject to rape and physical beatings by random strangers – and sometimes even from alleged “friends”.

Surprised that homeless teens are right here in our area?  I certainly was.  I think of our Denton County communities as fairly well off economically, with most parents able to easily provide the basic necessities for their children.  But this is more than an economic issue.  It is the total disintegration of the family support that most of us take for granted.

Homelessness is not a minor problem here.  Lewisville ISD counselors have identified these homeless teens.  Over 170 of them have found a refuge this past year at the First United Methodist Church of Lewisville on Main Street.

On weekdays after school from 4 p.m. until 9 p.m. they can go to the church and bathe, wash clothes, eat a snack or meal, study in a quiet place, or just “be there”.  After that, these homeless teens have no place to go.  They “couch surf” in a friend’s home, sleep in cars, or find shelter in abandoned buildings.  These are not dropouts; some have even been accepted to college.

I stumbled on the plight of the homeless teens in October at a two day grant writing workshop sponsored by CoServ Electrical Co-op.  The course is taught annually by veteran grant writer Dennis Engelke, Chairman of the CoServ Charitable Foundation.  Dennis is an awesome instructor and dedicated to helping our local charities and non-profit groups find funding.  This year the workshop was generously hosted by Christian Community Action at their central facility in Lewisville.

My seatmate was a woman who had volunteered to write an application for a new program called “YOTO” at First United Methodist Church of Lewisville.  She had originally heard the name as an acronym for “Youth on their Own”, but that name had already been copyrighted by a group in Arizona.

This woman was no professional grant writer.  She was a beginner like me to the grant application process for charities and non-profits.  But she had been so touched by the plight of the homeless teens that she had decided to do her best to find help for them.  I sat quietly dumfounded listening to her read aloud to our group the first “draft” of her grant request (see below).  It was such an eloquent plea for a problem I had not even known existed.  I was very moved.  I immediately asked her how many homeless teens there were in our area?  I expected her to say 10 or 12.  I was shocked when she said at the time over 125 homeless teens had used her church’s refuge since it began last December 5th!  This was early October; not even a full year had passed since the program was initiated!

Some homeless teens only come once to the church; some come for days or weeks and then move back home; some may drop out of school and go to work to support themselves; some just disappear to an unknown fate.  But some are daily regulars at the church’s YOTO program and determined to complete their high school education.  They hone their survival skills for the long shelter-less nights and even longer weekends. I salute their tenacity and even creativity.  (One teen learned that he could wait until apartment Exercise Rooms were empty and then sleep there overnight.)  When you are homeless, you have to seek shelter wherever you can find it.

These teens come from all economic levels and all ethnic and racial backgrounds.  Like child abuse, the problem of homeless teens is not limited to any one group – it covers the spectrum of residents in our area of Denton County.

When I asked if I could visit the facilities, the First United Methodist Church of Lewisville staff welcomed me.  The church has dedicated six areas to the teens from 4:00 p.m. after school until 9:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday.  Friday the area is not available after 7:00 p.m. 

First, there is a “hang out” room.  The teens can visit, eat snacks, play the guitar, or whatever.  It is a space just “to be”.  The second room has four computer laptops, Internet access, and a printer.  It is a place for independent study.   The third room is for tutoring and counseling.  The fourth room is a game room with ping pong table, foosball, and a television set. The largest area, and one of the most popular, is a huge indoor gymnasium with a basketball court.  (Two Army recruiters often come in their fatigues to “shoot hoops” and provide information to any teen who might be interested in joining one of our military services.)  The fifth area is indispensable.  There is a large girls’ bathroom with shower facilities and a large boys’ bathroom with shower area.  And a washing machine and dryer for keeping the teens’ clothes clean.

The church is equipped with a full commercial kitchen and snacks and meals are prepared there for the teens.  Upstairs is a “clothes bank” stocked by Christian Community Action to extend the teen’s meager wardrobe or replace the clothes on their back that they have outgrown.  Basic toiletries are also provided.

Transportation to and from individual high schools to the church is a problem.  There are 8 bicycles that are loaned to the teens and bus passes are available.  The church would love to have a van that could be used to transport the teens to and from as many LISD high schools as necessary.

State laws do not allow churches, charities, or adults to legally harbor homeless teens overnight.  To do so is a criminal offense. Our State laws against harboring a teen overnight without parental permission are meant to protect homeless teens from pimps and prostitution and adults who might do them harm.  Unfortunately, these same laws prevent any church, non-profit, or adult from legally sheltering these homeless teens overnight.  There is no protection from liability under our current legal system.  But these laws can be changed by our legislators.

Surely some well thought out exceptions could be drafted to allow churches or non-profits to give these young people refuge overnight.  Maybe the churches or non-profits would be required to have an extended number of years of public service as a required track record to be elig
ible to legally offer safe overnight facilities to homeless teens.

I’ve often thought that older or modest motels would make convenient residences for both homeless teens and teen mothers with infants.  Each individual room is private, already furnished, and has its own bath facilities.  And many motels are often equipped with some kind of kitchen facilities to offer meals.  Daycare for infants and small children could be offered onsite.  GED classes could be held on site to facilitate the teen getting a basic educational certificate.  Social workers, counselors, teachers, and medical personnel could come to the motel to serve these teens and infants.  This would solve the often insurmountable problem of transportation; as getting to school, a job, or a medical facility is often impossible for homeless and impoverished teens.

I’m guessing that you are going to ask what you can donate to help:  winter coats; gift certificates; multi-vitamins (sealed and not out of date).  The latter item is very valuable, because getting enough food to eat is an ongoing “iffy” problem for these growing, homeless 16 to 17 year old teens.

Special thanks go to LISD Counselors for identifying these homeless teens.  These homeless teenagers are desperate, but they do not want their peers to know that they do not have a home or any shelter at night.  It is the individual LISD counselors who listen to them, recognize their situation, and gain their trust.  It is these counselors who show the homeless teen a path to partial but also critical aid through the YOTO program.

Jessica Peters is the Director of YOTO.  For further information you can reach her at jpeters_fumc@yahoo.com or at the church’s office number 972-436-2533.  Lynda Whitman is the Director of Family Ministries.  The First United Methodist Church of Lewisville is located at 907 West Main Street, Lewisville, Texas 75067.   (on the northeast corner of Main Street and Summit Drive, across the street from the Taco Bell in the Walmart and Sam’s complex in Lewisville.)

My sincere gratitude to Dennis Engelke from CoServ, LISD Counselors, Christian Community Action, Janet Peavler, Jessica Peters, Lynda Whitman, and the First United Methodist Church of Lewisville for having the courage to tackle such a tough issue as homeless teens.

Editor’s Note: After a story about the plight of homeless children was featured on the TV program “60 Minutes”, local business owner Kim Cloud, who is well known for giving back to the community, started a new campaign called Cloud 9 Charities Bedtime Rescue.  Learn more about how you can help the homeless in Denton County at www.facebook.com/cloud9charities.


 

The Problem

 

By Jessica Peters

Unlike other school districts in Denton County, LISD has no formal instrument for identifying the homeless among its student population.  Therefore, the scope of the problem can only be estimated.   According to Lewisville ISD counselors in the spring of 2010, more than 100 teens in the district were homeless.  

The teens in our target population are caught in a bureaucratic limbo.  Because they are over 15, they are no longer a priority of Child Protective Services.  Yet, because they are not legally adults, they are barred from accessing the services of other social agencies in our community.  These agencies may require parental permission or a statement of income to offer services.  For our clients, family income is irrelevant, and parental involvement is problematic. 

Teen homelessness differs from adult homelessness in that it is rooted in family dynamics rather than economic issues.  Some teens have been kicked out of their homes; others have been told that they are old enough to take care of themselves.  Sometimes there is violence, mental illness, or substance abuse in the home, or conflict over pregnancy, gender issues, or lack of success in school.  Divorce, or a parent’s new boyfriend or girlfriend, may have engendered discord.  Regardless of the causes, these teens have lost the structure of family that should provide them with care, sustenance, shelter, and love. 

The greatest need of our teens is overnight shelter.  However, under the section 25.06 of the Texas Penal Code: “A person commits an offense if he knowingly harbors a child and he is criminally negligent about whether the child: (1) is younger than 18 years; and (2) has escaped from the custody of a peace officer, a probation officer, the Texas Youth Council, or a detention facility for children, or is voluntarily absent from the child’s home without the consent of the child’s parent or guardian for a substantial length of time or without the intent to return.”  For this reason, community-provided overnight shelter is not feasible until state laws are changed.  Thus, our clients are left to couch-surf with friends, or to sleep in cars or abandoned buildings. 

Our target population is currently enrolled in school and our goal is to keep them there, progressing toward graduation.  For these teens, the obstacles can seem overwhelming.  In a study published in the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, nearly three-quarters of homeless youth over the age of 16 drop out of high school.   Among the reasons why, according to The National Network for Youth, were the lack of a quiet and safe place to do homework, the lack of school supplies, and the lack of food.

Our program is therefore designed to meet the survival needs of these youths on their own, while supporting them in their educational needs.  We provide food, clothing, school supplies, hygiene products, tutoring, a quiet place to study, and a safe place to be.

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