Allegheny County reaching out to homeless youths

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At age 5, London Dixon-Terry entered the foster care system in Philadelphia, going to live with a kind family who eventually adopted him and provided him "the perfect life."

But when he was 16, Mr. Dixon-Terry's adoptive mother died. His family fell apart. So did his life.

By age 19 he found himself homeless and bouncing between life on the streets in the Pittsburgh area and various homeless shelters. During his two years on the streets, he sometimes lived in encampments with other young homeless people or slept in places like alleys and laundromats.

"I was to the point where I was pretty much from place to place and I didn't know what was going on," he said.

Since spring, Mr. Dixon-Terry, who is now 21, has been a resident of a transitional living program for young adults operated by Family Links at its Downtown Outreach Center, Uptown, where he can remain for 21 months. He was referred there by a staffer at an adult homeless shelter.

He's working in the cleaning department of a Downtown gym, trying to save money for a place of his own and deciding whether to pursue an education or job training or look for a better-paying full-time job. But he can't shake the feeling that he could end up back on the streets.

"I feel like I could make a wrong move and end up back there," he said.

Mr. Dixon-Terry is among the estimated 55,000 homeless young adults in the United States ages 18-24, referred to by government officials as "unaccompanied youth."

They include young people who have aged out of the foster care system; have left their homes because of disputes, dysfunction or violence; or were kicked out.

Those who study the issue say a significant portion of the unaccompanied youth appear to be among the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population.

Government entities across the country are trying to get a handle on the population, and in Allegheny County discussions on the issue have been going on for the past 18 months among officials from the Allegheny County Human Services Department and homeless services providers. As a result, the county hired a consultant to study the issue and produce a report with recommendations on how to best serve homeless young people.

"These young people are invisible. They don't walk around with 'I'm Homeless' on their T-shirts. We don't know who they are. We have to get closer to that group to get leads and guidance on how we can best serve them," said Joseph Lagana, founder and CEO of the Homeless Children's Education Fund, which spearheaded the discussions.

On Sunday, Mr. Dixon-Terry was one of three homeless young men who told his story to videographer Mark Horvath, who maintains social media sites called "Invisible People," which document the stories of homeless people across the country.

Mr. Dixon-Terry's route to homelessness started with delinquent behavior after his mother died and his placement in the juvenile justice system. He was transferred to a facility in the Pittsburgh area. By his senior year of high school, he was living in a group home and attending South Side Area School District in Beaver County, from which he graduated. From there he was accepted to a trade school, which provided student housing. But when he dropped out of trade school after six months because of academic difficulties, he lost his home.

He spent his first week in a cheap motel but ran out of money. Then he couch surfed -- sleeping different nights at the homes of various friends and acquaintances. He ran out of available couches quickly and then made the rounds of shelters both in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Then there were the two years mostly on the streets.

His story is typical of unaccompanied youth, say those who work with and study the issue.

Lenny Prewitt, program manager at the Family Links Downtown Outreach Center, said it's not uncommon to see a young adult lose his housing after dropping out of school. The outreach center offers both short-term shelter and longer-term transitional housing for homeless individuals ages 18-21.

"Kids have called here because they've had an argument with their parents and they want someplace to go. Or they show up at the door and say we've been living Downtown. Our most recent admission is a kid out of the military who was staying in a park," Mr. Prewitt said. There have also been teens who have lived at the center while finishing high school and those who have aged out of the foster care system and can't make it on their own.

Mr. Prewitt said plans for independent living are generally made for those who leave foster care, but sometimes those plans are tenuous and fall apart.

It's hard to get a solid count on homeless young adults because they often don't want to be counted. Those under 18 fear being returned to or placed into the foster care system, and those who are over 18 often create "street families" or relationships with others on the street that they would likely have to break up in order to enter shelters and receive services.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates there were 55,000 homeless people between the ages of 18-24 in 2009 and another 55,000 between the ages of 12-17. In Allegheny County, there were 677 individuals in that 18-24 age range who received homeless services from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, said Kathy McCauley, the consultant hired to study the issue.

Her focus is homeless individuals ages 18-24 who are not supporting children and who do not have the support of parents or guardians or have a permanent place to stay.

Ms. McCauley spent time this summer meeting with about 20 homeless youth at the various centers and interviewing representatives from 25 to 30 service providers.

What she found from the young people was that about a third had been in foster care at some point in their lives. Others described themselves as being kicked out of their homes and some in that group identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

"The stories they were all telling were of using various shelters. What struck me was that they all wanted to work. The main reason they are homeless is because they don't have a job. They would ask, 'Is there a place where I could get a job?' " Ms. McCauley said.

But being homeless is an obstacle to keeping a job since they don't have a place to sleep, shower or wash their clothes.

"Of those who shared their stories with me, two were staying in adult shelters. Everybody else was living on the streets in camps," she said.

They identified a food line that sets up along the Boulevard of the Allies as a service they used regularly. They also spend a lot of time in public libraries and most said they maintained a Facebook account, she said.

In fact, it was through messages on Facebook that she was able to round up homeless young adults willing to meet with her.

She said the young people told her the best way to reach their group would be to hand out information at free food distributions Downtown, on bridges that sometimes provide shelter for the homeless, in libraries, on Facebook and in churches.

She'll complete her report to the county after meeting again with service providers to go over her findings.

In addition to the Family Links shelter programs, there is a daily drop-in center for homeless young adults on Smithfield Street called Service Access for Youth at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. The center, where Ms. McCauley met with homeless young adults, was opened earlier this year as a collaboration between a handful of groups including the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, the Homeless Children's Education Fund and UPMC Adolescent Medicine Department.

It offers homeless young adults a place to spend time during the day, get a meal or snacks, and have access to a nurse practitioner and legal help. Those who use the center don't have to share information about themselves. But among those who have, one is living in a homeless shelter, two others are living in doorways and some are living in camps or tented communities, said Lyndsey Sickler, the community center's outreach director.

"If they want help, we try to figure out how to get them off the streets. We help them to decide what's the next best step for them," Ms. Sickler said.

Her agency also operates an outreach effort through which workers hit the streets in areas where homeless youth tend to congregate, Downtown and on the North Side and South Side, to hand out information about programs available to help them.

Chuck Keenan, an administrator in the homeless services bureau for the county Department of Human Services, said the county has funded, via federal grant money, three efforts in recent years to help ACTION-Housing provide transitional living units to homeless 18-to-24-year-olds. But there are waiting lists for the program. The current grant is helping to fund the construction of 25-30 new units in Uptown. People can live in the units for up to two years while working on skills to prepare them to live independently afterward.

Pittsburgh police Assistant Chief of Operations Maurita Bryant, who has been part of the discussions on homeless youth, said her concern is their vulnerability. "When they are out there, they don't have any money and are going from place to place. They become victimized by people who manipulate them. It could be sexual favors for young girls that may be nice looking. It could be marijuana or ecstasy. Young people who are desperate and don't have anything have a tendency to make poor decisions," she said.

Chief Bryant said she looks forward to the recommendations from Ms. McCauley. "There's a lot of good work that's done, but it's just a matter of trying to identify where the resources are and how they can collaborate to help the kids," she said.

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Mary Niederberger: or 412-263-1590. First Published September 16, 2013 4:00 AM


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