Dec 16, 2013
05:39 AMConnecticut Today
Connecticut's Invisible Homeless Are Youths
Janai Kemp lived for couch to couch fromn 14 to 27 years of age. Kemp was unaware of services available to homeless youth.
Janai Kemp started couch surfing at 14, shortly after his parents split up.
“By the time my father left home, I was just getting into smoking weed and kind of doing my own thing,” he said. “I had a feeling my mother was about to leave and get her own place, and leave me with one of my older sisters, so I just left home.”
Kemp went to stay with the Cruzes, the family of a close childhood friend. But he continued to smoke marijuana and the Cruzes kicked him out.
“They definitely weren’t having that, so I had to go,” he said.
He would bounce between his family, friends, rented space in the basements of New Haven’s boarding houses; at one point he slept in a downtown recording studio. He lived in a serial state of homelessness for 13 years. Kemp worked, but rarely had enough money for his own place. His occasional pot smoking became habitual, and in the streets he started to use cocaine and drink excessively.
“I was used to not having. I got used to a poor mentality, and when things would become too much to handle, my first reaction was to just run, to leave,” he said.
Kemp was among the homeless youth, a population that garners little attention and receives few resources.
“These kids are invisible; these are not lovable kids,” said Carole Shomo, executive director of New Haven-based Youth Continuum, a homeless services group that has operated in Connecticut for 47 years. “These are the kids with the hoodies on that people are scared of.”
Invisible is a word used by many of the policy advocates and academics who study homelessness among the country’s youth, defined as those between the ages of 14 and 24 who lack stable housing.
There are no accurate estimates of homeless youth in Connecticut. Despite their use of sophisticated data management systems to track students, the state’s public schools struggle to keep accurate counts of the homeless children in their schools.
According to the most recent tally of public schools across the state completed at the end of the 2012 school year, 2,804 students in Connecticut are homeless, up 50 percent since 2008. New Haven Public Schools officials counted about 400 homeless children among its student population in 2012-13.
But schools rely heavily on self-reporting to count for homeless students, and unaccompanied homeless teens, like Kemp, often evade the same authorities who would count and connect them with services.
“The homeless students were are able to track are more largely concentrated in the young student group,” said Renee Osborne, who coordinates services for the district’s homeless services for New Haven Public Schools. “Parents with young children who lack shelter are actively seeking assistance; older students are avoiding assistance because they don’t want the intervention that comes with help.”
The very nature of an unaccompanied homeless youth’s life — hopping from couch to couch, frequently changing locations — frustrates those charged with counting and addressing the needs of transient teens and young adults.
“They use strategies that help keep themselves invisible.” said Derrick Gordon, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine.
Gordon is the co-author of “Invisible No More: Creating Opportunities For Youth Who Are Homeless.”
He partnered with Bronwyn Hunter, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at Yale, and the Partnership for Strong Communities, a policy think tank, on the report. The study, released Thursday, polled 98 homeless youths ages 14 to 24 from across the state. The study collected data on education, housing, finances, families, peers and mental and physical health, as well as interactions with law enforcement and drug use.
According to the report, more than half of youths surveyed reported being kicked out of their parents’ house at least once; a third have dropped out of school and most reported having experimented with cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.
The report called for increased resources for homeless youth, specifically housing, which remains in short supply.
“The truth of the matter is, there are 15 emergency beds for homeless youth in the state of Connecticut,” Gordon said.
Resistance to homeless housing in rural and suburban settings pushes homeless youth and their families to the cities for services. But even in cities such as New Haven, where services abound, there are not enough beds.
“Try to find a shelter for a young person tonight and there is a waiting list,” Gordon said. “Get in line with the other men at the adult shelter, that is your best option.”
Connecticut's Invisible Homeless Are Youths