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Stacey Violante Cote, Directer, Teen Advocacy Project, Center for Children’s Advocacy
It was a cold night, so I put on a warm coat and gloves. I stuffed my pockets with snacks. I represent youth as a lawyer in my day job, so I felt I was well prepared to volunteer for the recent Homeless Youth Count, a statewide count of youth experiencing homelessness. My partner (a youth researcher) and I walked around downtown Hartford to survey as many 13- to 24-year-old youth as possible in the seven-day period governed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Getting an accurate count is important to understand the problem of youth homelessness and access resources to combat it.
In truth, I wasn’t prepared at all. I wasn’t prepared for how it would feel to face youth after youth who did not know where they were going to sleep that night. I just kept looking at their faces and thinking: They’re too young for this. This isn’t right.
There was Chris who was formerly in Department of Children and Families (DCF) care. He had just been released from prison and was puzzling out which community college he should go to so he can get his degree. He was staying temporarily on a relative’s couch- a place where the welcome mat was worn down very thin. He was pretty sure he could stay another night but he didn’t know how long it would last. He wanted to talk about where he could volunteer because he knew what it was like to grow up in “the system” and he wanted to offer support (and perhaps a cautionary tale) to youth like him.
We moved on from downtown after surveying several youth, some with housing instability and some who were perfectly happy teens with housing. The juxtaposition of these two worlds is amazingly invisible; you couldn’t tell one from the other as they walked along the sidewalk.
My partner knew a youth who was homeless and he called her to ask if she was interested in taking the survey. She said yes and we drove over to the next location to interview her. He ended up interviewing four youth at that site, all of whom were experiencing housing instability. They were all young parents who had dropped out of school, and all had previous contact with DCF. Three of them were staying on someone’s couch temporarily, including one who was just 16 years old. One person literally had no place to go. Luckily, we helped him to call 211 and get connected with services.
Connecticut has limited housing and crisis options for youth experiencing homelessness. We have only a small, but critical, state-funded program that provides a few emergency beds that are constantly full, as well as a time-limited program to house homeless youth and provide necessary services, including to build the life skills they need. There are more than 240 youth on the waitlist for those few slots. The good news is that because of our work in gathering better data through Youth Counts and state-wide coordination, the federal government has confidence in us and recently awarded $6.5 million over two years toward our efforts to end youth homelessness. While incredible, that money is not likely to hit the ground for another year or so. What will Chris do until then?
The last youth we interviewed walked up to the window at Dunkin’ Donuts and peered quickly inside before starting to walk away. We weren’t sure what he was looking for, maybe a friend, maybe he just wanted to look at the colorful donuts on the racks. He agreed to take the survey and was, in fact, housing unstable. We gave him a $5 gift card for his time, knowing it wasn’t nearly enough. I just kept thinking: What will he do tomorrow night?
The state is facing some tough budgetary choices this legislative session. Our work to end homelessness is an investment that pays off through less use of expensive government programs like jails, health care and substance abuse treatment; it’s also an investment in youth like Chris and the boy peering in the window of Dunkin’ Donuts. Preserving the Homeless Youth Program in our state budget as well as homeless line items in our state agencies will do this. It’s the smart thing to do because homelessness is expensive and solvable. And these faces are too young for this.
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