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The invisible kids in your neighborhood

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Fifteen year-old Johnny Morgan walks slowly along the main street in the town that used to be a comfortable haven for him. He pulls the collar of his jacket up around his ears as an icy wind pushes against his chest. The school day ended an hour ago and most of his classmates are on their way home to study their assignments. Johnny is not as fortunate.

The most he can hope for is that he doesn’t have to spend another night on the street. Perhaps one of his friends will get permission from their parents to allow him the use of a couch to get through the night. Some parents are reluctant to take him in, fearing liability if he gets hurt, or because they’re suspicious about his homeless condition. Is he a mischievous child whose parents can no longer deal with him? Has he been in trouble with the police, causing his family to give up on him?

For most homeless kids that is simply not the case, according to Kimberly Hinkle, founder and executive director of Journey to Dream, a nonprofit organization that has worked with at-risk teens in the area for 10 years. My wife and I were honored to interview Ms. Hinkle recently, along with Dana Smith, CEO of Communities in Schools of North Texas (CISNT), which counsels students in danger of becoming dropouts. Kim and Dana are working together to find a place for homeless teens to keep them off the street and out of the clutches of child predators. The fact is; most people have no idea that there are homeless youngsters throughout Denton County. That’s because, if you don’t know there’s a problem, the kids become invisible. One estimate is 2,100 teens, boys and girls, without a permanent home. Yes, that means right here in our community!

The reason for their seemingly hopeless situation varies. It might be that a single mom has taken a boyfriend into the home and complications ensue. There may be physical or sexual abuse that drives the teenager out of his/her otherwise comfortable surroundings. We can all remember our teenage years as a time when we were often stressed about school grades, social conformity, dating and other juvenile challenges. But, in my wildest imagination I could never envision being without a place to have a hot meal, a warm bed and loving parents. Most of us can’t even imagine a parent abandoning a child to the cold dark streets where they will be preyed upon by drug pushers and human traffickers. On the contrary, if we weren’t home before dark there’d be a posse out looking for us.

Three other guests at our home office were Denton County Commissioner Andy Eads, his administrative assistant, Lori Fickling, and Texas State Rep. Tan Parker. During the interview I posed a question: What has happened to our culture when parents can look away as their flesh and blood is exposed to imminent peril? “I suppose it’s the moral decay that has permeated the landscape of our society,” Parker said sadly. Ms. Hinkle had a personal tragedy in her own life more than a decade ago, inspiring her to get involved with kids in need. Her former husband developed issues with drug addiction and their 2 children needed help to understand the devastation it caused in their lives. She connected with the Betty Ford Children’s Program which helps kids from 5 through 12 to jump start the healing process. “It’s a 3-4 day program that teaches them the words to use to better understand their feelings and deal with what’s going on,” she said. “It helped my children to understand that their dad was sick and it didn’t mean he didn’t love them,” she added.

During her years with Journey to Dream, Kim discovered what appeared to be a recent phenomenon, homeless teenagers. It was around 2012 when a teenager named Kyle, who suffered from depression, committed suicide. “At that time we started hearing about YOTO (Youth On Their Own), which was a drop-in center across from Lewisville High School.  I read an article at that time about the homeless issue and learned that the parents of kids who attend Lewisville High School had no idea there was a homeless issue for teens. So we started trying to understand what was going on. The more we got into it, the more alarmed we were that this was happening all across Denton County and that we didn’t have a place for them to go,” said Kim. YOTO found that they were offering services at the Methodist Church where, after school, the drop-ins could come in and eat dinner, shower and get prepared for school the next day. But, they found that after a period of time the kids weren’t coming because they also needed a place to sleep.

The idea was born for a temporary “safe haven” for these kids. Named “Kyle’s Place,” the support system will be located somewhere in the county and will be equipped to house those kids who have, for whatever reason, found themselves abandoned to the streets. Although Child Protective Services steps in at certain ages, children over 13 don’t have many options if their parents stop providing a place to live. “At some ages, if a teen gets kicked out on the street, the parent is no longer accountable because (according to the law) they are deemed safe if they are “couch surfing” at the home of a friend,” said Ms. Smith.

Commissioner Eads, who first brought this to my attention during my interview with him a few weeks ago, is president of CISNT, and working to help launch the project. Lori Fickling, who knows something about child counseling, having been a mentor for a young woman for the past 9 years, has also worked with CISNT. Statistics tell us that one-third of homeless children have been approached by a human trafficker within 48 hours of becoming homeless. I shudder to think of the future they’re destined for. Tan Parker, who was recently elected as Caucus Chairman for the Texas House, is working on legislation to give homeless kids a chance to sleep safely at night as they begin their journey to adulthood. For more info please go to www.journeytodream.com.

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