For a child, homelessness means sitting on a street corner, doing homework assignments by streetlight, not knowing if there will be a place to sleep that night or a hot meal to eat. A local nonprofit organization is connecting these teens with families in the community, getting them off the streets and helping them plan for a brighter future.
Homeless Youth Connection, a Goodyear-based service provider for homeless teens, created the state’s only host family program in 2014 to help homeless youth find stability and success while making up for some of the shortcomings in Arizona’s system.
Although the organization currently only serves students attending any of the organization’s 34 partner high schools in the West Valley, the group is hoping to expand to the East Valley soon, said Aimee Yamamori, community engagement manager for Homeless Youth Connection.
THE HOST FAMILY EXPERIENCE
Patty Hannon, co-owner of OCM Recycle West in Tolleson, took in two homeless 18-year-old students through this program in August.
As a host-parent, she houses, feeds and cares for the two young men, and will until they complete high school, in a program model similar to a study abroad host family.
“They make my house a home. We have a home now,” said the single woman. “We have a family.”
Hannon heard about the host family program through friends involved in the organization, including its founder Larry Cervarich.
“I really grew attached,” Hannon said. “I became attached to and I wanted to help them. I wanted them to have a sense of family.”
First came Roy, the kind-hearted, sensitive artist who was originally meant to stay with Hannon for only two weeks. After Roy experienced a conflict with his previous host family, he told Hannon he felt safe with her and asked to stay.
Then came Harry, the athletic rugby-player originally from Africa. Because of her positive experience with Roy, Hannon said she decided to bring a second child into her home.
“These boys have a home forever,” Hannon said. “They are not homeless anymore.”
Before Harry and Roy participated in the host family program, neither was on-track to attend college after graduating from high school, she said. Now, both plan to either attend Estrella Mountain Community College or enter into military service, she said.
“They’re both smart, they’re going to go and have a great life. I’m trying to give guidelines to accomplish that,” she said.
Hannon, who refers to the two as her “boys,” said the program has given them a sense of security.
They each have their own bedroom and belongings. They have their own lives, she said.
“You go to school and you have someone to come home to. You have someone that cares and loves you,” Hannon said. “I think that makes a difference in anybody’s life.”
She said the host family model is a good option because it allows for the kind of personal attention that young people need but may not get in shelters or group homes.
Despite her busy life as a single woman, chair of the Southwest Valley Chamber of Commerce and business owner, Hannon said the support she receives from the Homeless Youth Connection team makes being a host parent so easy that anyone can do it.
“I think most people look at me and say, ‘Are you kidding me? You took in two 18-year-old boys?’ But it’s not any trouble,” Hannon said. “It’s rewarding with rewards that are immeasurable for both them and me. With very little trouble, you can have this in your life.”
She attributed this ease to the comprehensive support system Homeless Youth Connection provides for its students and host families.
Students who are part of a homeless family, and therefore aren’t eligible for the host family program, can still use Homeless Youth Connection’s other services such as mental health counseling, case management, mentorship, life skills training and connections to other resources that provide students with basic needs such as clothing and hygiene products.
Host family program participants have access to these resources in addition to assistance with transportation, when necessary. Host parents receive financial support in the form of a monthly $200 stipend for each child.
“I think that my children will be a big success, and I think it’s because of Homeless Youth Connection that they will be this successful, because they put us together,” Hannon said. “They knew what they were doing.”
ARIZONA’S HOMELESS TEENS
In 2013, about 2.5 million, or 1 in 30 children in the United States were homeless, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.
The center ranked Arizona as the 45th worst out of the 50 states in terms of its extent of child homelessness, child well-being, risk for child homelessness and state policy and planning efforts.
Alfred Edwards, statewide homeless coordinator for the Department of Economic Security, said youth make up one of the fastest growing populations of homeless people.
“Sometimes it’s hard to determine the amount of homelessness within the community for youth, because some of these youths can couch surf or stay with others, but they’re still homeless at the end of the day,” Edwards said.
Youth do not go to shelters until they run out of friends’ couches to sleep on, he said.
HOW THE PROGRAM WORKS
Aimee Yamamori, Homeless Youth Connection’s community engagement manager, said the organization was founded in 2009 after founder Larry Cervarich read a story in a newspaper about how local youth were struggling against homelessness and their basic needs were not being met.
The organization operates through partnerships with local high schools. Only students between the ages of 13 and 19 who are enrolled in any of the organization’s 34 partner high schools are eligible to participate.
She said Arizona’s services for homeless people have many shortcomings for which Homeless Youth Connection is hoping to compensate, such as the lack of services once homeless students reach a certain age.
Because building a shelter or group home would have been expensive, the organization opted for the host family program model because it is less costly, Yamamori said.
It is the most requested housing model among homeless youth because it is most like a “normal” household, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
This model also allows for greater community engagement and allows youth to be in a family setting, she said.
Still, Yamamori said on average, about 60 to 70 percent of the organization’s students are connected with an entire homeless family. While these individuals can take advantage of the organization’s other services, they cannot participate in the host family program.
The number of host family volunteers and the lack of excess funding for case managers to assist the teens are also limitations to the program, she said.
In the past school year, Homeless Youth Connection placed 17 students into host families.
Because the program is only 2-years-old and many participants have yet to graduate from high school, Yamamori said it is difficult to measure its success.
Yet, Homeless Youth Connection chose to implement the host family program after witnessing success in similar programs around the country, including Minnesota-based Avenues for Homeless Youth, which encompasses three different host home programs, she said.
Raquel (Rocki) Simões manages Avenues for Homeless Youth’s GLBT host home program, which has been serving gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender homeless youth between the ages of 16 and 24, for 19 years.
“The messiness and the beauty of the host homes program is about all the other stuff,” Simões said. “It’s about the human relationships and trust.”
She said her team aims to have up to 10 homeless youth placed in host homes at any given time.
Since 2007, 65 people have participated in the GLBT host home program. In the last fiscal year, 90 percent of participants transitioned from their host homes into stable housing, according to the organization’s year-end report.
“I think it’s just a really different response to homelessness. It’s a much more intimate one. So these are folks in the community who are opening their homes,” Simões said. “They’re not social workers. They’re not therapists. They’re not probation officers.”
ISSUES IN THE SYSTEM
Reducing the number of homeless people in Arizona requires a multifaceted approach, said David Smith, communication director of Central Arizona Shelter Services in Phoenix.
“One of the biggest problems we have with our chronically homeless population is that there’s nowhere for them to go,” he said. “What we need is more affordable housing and permanent supportive housing.”
The Central Arizona Shelter Services facilities and affordable housing options are often full, he said, which can be a major issue for special populations of homeless people, such as youth.
The shelter currently uses its dining facilities as an overflow shelter, he said.
“When we have the youths that are 18 to 24, we have a short window to get them out of homelessness, otherwise it becomes a situation that they are unable to break out of a cycle,” Smith said.
Instability plagued the childhood of 23-year-old Phoenix resident and ASU alumna Mona Dixon, who was homeless from ages 3 to 13. She said many of the state’s programs leave unaddressed roadblocks for homeless people trying to get back on their feet.
“People start to get down on themselves because they feel like no one wants them,” she said.
Dixon’s mother, younger brother and older sister had been living at her grandparents’ house, but became homeless after they passed away because they could not find affordable housing, she said.
Dixon’s mother worked as an in-home caregiver for the elderly and after her shifts, stood in line at a homeless shelter so her three children would have a safe place to sleep.
“What happens is, you have to go and wait in line to try to get a spot to sleep (in a shelter), so if you’re homeless and you work a job, you have to be able to get off that job in time to go wait for a spot to (sleep),” Dixon said.
By focusing on her studies, Dixon said she was able to secure a scholarship to ASU and grow her career as the special events manager for the Boys and Girls Club of East Valley, but keeping up with academics was sometimes difficult while she was living on the streets.
“Wherever we were, it didn’t matter if we were living on the streets, I did my homework,” Dixon said. “There were times when I would read books under street lamps and did my homework under street lamps.”
Like Smith, she said shelters are often full and affordable housing is often unavailable, highlighting the need for a different type of housing program.
Access to transportation and clean clothing were also frequent obstacles Dixon faced while she was homeless, she said.
According to the Homeless Youth Connection’s year-end report, its leaders chose the host family program model because it addressed the barriers of transportation and geographical distance within its service area.
It is difficult to worry about getting a job before one has the basic means of survival: food and shelter, she said, so services such as the host family program, which provide youth with these resources, are better able to set the teens up for success.
“Then you can go out and you have the home to come back to, you have the food to come back to,” she said. “So now you can focus on the other stuff that you have to do for yourself to get back on your feet.”
Yamamori said helping homeless teens is important because most are homeless for reasons beyond their control, and are working hard to overcome this adversity.
Assisting teens now can help the economy later, she said, because those who finish high school often grow up to be more productive adults, she said.
Alfred Edwards, statewide homeless coordinator for the Department of Economic Security, said affordable housing is the department’s top obstacle in reducing the number of homeless people in Arizona, and Arizonans should care about the state’s growing homeless population.
“It’s something that we really need to pay attention to, because as the homeless numbers rise, the more social impacts we’ll see. Homelessness can affect anyone. It’s a situation that can come at any time. We need to look out for our fellow man. The situation will not get any better if we don’t address it,” he said.
If you are interested in becoming a host family, please contact Homeless Youth Connection’s community engagement manager, Aimee Yamamori, at [email protected]