Shelter From The Storm
Amidst the stories of entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity it's sometimes easy to forget that there are those who face profound hardship. For instance, Oakland County, for all its prosperity, must contend with teens who have left or been forced from their homes. Kim North Shine takes a look at the shelters and services that help struggling youth find a place in our community.
Every day dozens of metro Detroit children, not old enough to be on their own but forced to leave home, look for a place to run, to escape.
Seldom, if ever, do runaways, or throwaways, as they're also known, end up in a good place - at least not initially and not without some help. Some find friends or family to take them in, "couch-surfing," it's called. It's only a temporary solution. Others live in their cars or their friend's cars. Others come up with more creative survival strategies.
One Oakland County teen made a home in a treehouse a family had built in a big park. He would have frozen to death if not for the concerns of a teacher, says Melissa Hope, the street outreach manager for Common Ground Helps
. Hope was there when the teen was found sleeping with frostbite. Another runaway teen lived outside of his school, sheltered by the landscaping, showering in the locker rooms each morning, going to school every day until he graduated, she says.
"There's always been youth running away for various reasons," says Hope, one of several staffers for the nonprofit that helps Oakland County runaways between the ages of 10 and 23 by giving them food, clothing, shelter. They also help them get to school, find jobs, receive counseling and whatever they might need to meet a meaningful life.
"Right now one of the big trends is youths voluntarily leaving home or being kicked out of the home for financial reasons," she says.
She has worked for Common Ground since 1995, and as street outreach manager since 2003 Hope has seen how the face of runaway teens has changed, and how it has stayed the same. Runaways tend to be younger, she explains, and their problems differ from years past, but not a lot has changed, especially the suffering.
The runaways that find shelter and services are the best-case scenarios. Other runaways get to know strangers who will take them in for a night or two in exchange for the little money or few possessions they have or for sex. Drug use and "survival sex" become a part of many runaways' lives, says Hope.
It's these wandering runaways that Hope, her staff, and volunteers try to reach by canvassing the streets of Oakland County several times a week. They go where teens go: Concerts, festivals, etc. Hope also manages a drop-in shelter in Pontiac, formerly in Royal Oak. The drop-in, like others in Wayne and Macomb counties, gives them a place to shower, eat, talk, use computers, brush up resumes, and use lockers as mail boxes.
"Hopefully they let us help them find a stable living environment," Hope says. "On the streets we're going to miss some kids. We have the drop-in center so that the kids can come find us."
Each week five to ten children come through the doors, she adds.
All the organizations, including major ones such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation
- which fund many programs and initiatives to help children, strengthen families and more - are seeing how a struggling economy trickles down to relationships in the home.
"With the economy the way it is it's gotten much more prevalent. They hear things like, 'You're eating us out of house and home.' They're saying this to growing kids. We all know how teenage boys can eat. Or they're hearing, 'Your dad's out of job,' Hope explains.
"Whether parents think their kids are listening or not, they hear a lot," she continues. "They often feel the only way they can help is to leave… Sometimes parents don't understand the impact they're having on their children. Sometimes parents really do just want their children to leave. This is against the law, but it happens. These are the throwaways."
Mental illness either in the parents or in the child, a disease that often surfaces in teenage years, also splits up families as does substance abuse, physical, emotional and sexual, Hope says.
Disputes over sexual orientation are a newer, but less common reason kids run away or are kicked out, she adds. Other than that, "the reasons for running away are pretty much the same as they've always been."
She says 12 to 17 years olds are the most likely age group to run away.
"There are some as young as 10," Hope says. "It's real."
Part of Hope's outreach also reaches out to schools, hotels and other places that may see homeless kids or families and not know where to send them.
"Half the battle is getting the teachers and responsible adults to know what's out there," she says. "A lot of the kids you might not even know they're homeless because any money they do have, they spend it on things to make it look like they're not homeless."
For starters, concerned adults can call 1-800-RUNAWAY.
Common Ground Helps runs several programs besides Hope's street outreach and Pontiac Drop-In.
There's the Sanctuary in Royal Oak. It takes in 10- to 17-year-olds for up to three weeks while it's determined if home is a safe place to go back.
"They're usually always full … They have group counseling, family counseling individual counseling. The main objective is for youth and family to get the skills to work on their problems when they go home.
We also have after care and free outpatient counseling," Hope says.
Next door to Sanctuary is A Step Forward, which offers a place for 16-20 year olds to live for up to 18 months.
"This is for kids who are probably not going to be able to go home," Hope says. "If they want family counseling they can receive it, but mainly it's group and individual counseling as well as life skills, basic things: cleaning a bathroom, balancing a checkbook, how to get out and live on their own.
The last level of help for for the eldest of Common Ground's clients is GAP, Graduated Apartments Program, for 18- to 23-year-olds. They are given assistance to live on their own in apartments in Royal Oak and Ferndale. They can live there up to two years while receiving counseling and other assistance.
"A lot of people in Oakland County say, 'It's Oakland County there are no homeless teenagers.' I say, 'Yes there are and they're probably walking in the woods behind your house.' "
She rattles off the cities that might be surprising: Bloomfield, Franklin, Troy, Birmingham. There are kids from Pontiac, Royal Oak, all over, really, and the Street Outreach
staff and volunteers try to get to them all.
"Street outreach is unlike any program that's normally out there. Just as it says, it's on the street," Hope says. "We'll pretty much talk to any teenager that looks between the ages of 12-22."
As they talk they hand out cards with telephone numbers of places that offer help, whether its food, hygiene, shelter, job, schooling. School districts offer homeless youth liaisons who can help runaways, for example. They also hand out clothing, condoms, and food or take them out for a coffee or a bite to eat.
"We've had very bad negative responses from some kids," she says. "Or they'll say 'I have a friend who's living in my house because they ran away'…Eventually all those couches are going to run out. We're trying to get them to trust us enough to accept some help.
Kim North Shine is Metromode's Development News editor and a Grosse Pointe-based freelance writer.
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography