Runaway teenagers often find themselves homeless, temporarily living with friends or falling victim to sex traffickers. They wander the streets by day, scraping together or stealing what they need to survive. At night, they “couch surf,” going from friend to friend for a place to sleep.
One woman wants to change that.
Vicky Forby, who runs the Emerson Park Development Corporation and has worked with disadvantaged youth in the city for two decades, has submitted an application to the state for a license to open a 20-bed boys-only shelter inside of the old A.M. Jackson School at 18th Street and Summit Avenue. The Emerson Park Youth Build program, which is also located there, provides educational and job training services.
The idea of creating a homeless shelter for teens came to Forby after hearing their accounts of trying to survive living on the streets. While there are some places in the area for homeless girls, there are no places for boys. “And they need shelter, too,” she said.
“Our kids don’t really live under bridges, but there is a huge number of them who are homeless. They go from house to house, sleeping from one friend’s couch to another. We want to help them and maybe get them back with their families and back on track with education as well as get them whatever social services they need,” Forby said.
There are an estimated 240 homeless teenagers in St. Clair County, according to the St. Clair County Continuum of Care 2016 survey. They include 48 living in shelters, 109 in transitional housing, and 83 unsheltered.
Forby said teens in the East St. Louis area that she sees are homeless because they were kicked out, ran away from home, or the family structure collapses.
Tiffany Gholson, director of parent and student support services for School District 189, said last year there were an estimated 450 homeless students throughout the year, or about 7 percent of the district’s 6,000 students. Many of these are teens are still living with their families, but the family is homeless.
“When a student is not in a steady place, it has a ripple effect on the child,” she said. “Some don’t know where they’re going to sleep, get food or get their bus passes. It affects their success and general everyday needs.”
Acknowledging that 20 beds is not nearly enough, Forby said she has to start somewhere. Once she gets the first phase of her project open, she intends to expand the facility to include 20 beds for homeless teenage girls.
“We’ve been working with youths 18-24 years old since 1994. Eighty percent of them are homeless. Some are by choice, some because their families became homeless. It is dangerous for them to be on the streets because they run the risk of being sex trafficked, getting involved in criminal activity and negative behavior like drug and alcohol abuse.
“The shelter for boys is very much needed in St. Clair County. I am waiting on the state to give us our license,” Forby said. “I believe we can get them back on track with their education and get them whatever social services they need.”
Sister Julia Huiskamp, who has worked in the Griffin Homes and throughout East St. Louis for years, testified to the need for a shelter for homeless teens.
“There are a lot of homeless teens out there. What they often do is hook up with friends from school and they take them in and they kind of live with them and other people. They don’t have supervision or parenting or stability,” she said.
Huiskamp said there are a number of hotels and motels in the area that are basically “hot sheet motels,” where prostitution is a reality because “if you run away from home at age 15 or 16 and no one will give you money, but maybe they will give you a place to live. What are you going to do? Maybe you will turn some tricks and do some shoplifting,” she said.
It is dangerous for them to be on the streets because they run the risk of being sex trafficked, getting involved in criminal activity and negative behavior like drug and alcohol abuse.
Vicky Forby, Emerson Park Development Corporation
While Emerson Park receives state grants, Forby said she is seeking donations to help get the shelter off the ground and keep it running. She needs towels, mattresses, comforters, sheets, pillows, toiletries and bus passes. Financial donations also are welcome at www.emersonpark.org. All donations are tax deductible, she said.
“If every church and business in the greater East St. Louis region would commit to donating $200, the shelter could begin taking in youths before it turns cold,” Forby said. “In light of everything that is going on in the U.S. and world today, I believe this shelter can fulfill a need for young people who need a hand up onto a level playing field where the injustices they’ve suffered can be lightened and perhaps they can be reunited with positive members of their families, complete their education and discover a path that allows them to fulfill their dreams and become contributing members of society.”
Once homeless, they survived
A News-Democrat reporter recently talked to two young women who were homeless beginning when they were 15 and 16 years old, respectively. They asked that their names not be used to protect their privacy.
The first woman said her homeless life started when she was 15, when the lights were turned off in her family home. “I moved to my uncle’s house. I got into a fight with my aunt. She kicked me and my son, who was about 6 months old, out.
“I met this man who used to work for my mom and he let me and my son stay with him. Then, I started staying in hotel rooms or with friends.” She said she started sleeping with a man to get $300 to buy food, clothes and shoes for her child. When she stopped seeing him, he started following her around but he eventually left her alone.
At 18, she started dancing in strip clubs. It was a life she had seen her mother in. She said she worked long hours to get the money she needed to pay hotel rooms for her, her children and relatives.
“I worked every day to pay for the hotel room for my mom, her kids, my kids and my uncle. He was there to babysit the kids while we worked,” she said.
The stress of having to work long hours and sacrificing her body to do it eventually got to the woman. She had dropped out of school, “because I just didn’t like school.”
“I was doing good in the ninth grade, but I started skipping school in the 10th grade. I met a guy and I started staying at his house every day. I got pregnant by him when I was 17,” she said.
For this woman, now 23, the biggest worries she had while homeless were finding food and places to stay.
“How am I going to get money for me and my son so we can get food to eat, and where will I sleep?” she said, brushing away tears. “When you don’t have nobody, where do you go? What do you do to survive? I prayed about it,” she said.
She said she engaged in sex with several men for money. “I didn’t like it,” she said of the sexual activity. She said sometimes she had to steal the things she needed. “I went to jail before for stealing. How was I going to eat? I didn’t have anybody to help me,” she said tearfully.
Although she’s doing OK now, she said people should not judge her. “You don’t know what you will do in the situation I was in.”
The second woman, now 24, was 16 when she found herself on the streets. “My mom met a man and when she started dating him, she stopped caring. She cared about him more than her kids. All of her money went to him. Even her income tax money went to him,” the woman said.
“He put me and my 1-year-old twins out. I was walking down the street with them and my stuff,” she said. “He got mad because my mom let me in.”
Her grandmother let her and her children live with her sometimes. She said at one point both her mom and grandmother were on drugs.
“I asked my granny to let me stay at her house with my kids and she did. I stayed with her off and on for three years. Every time she got mad, she put me out. I moved after my granny and me got into it over $200 a month that she wanted me to pay to live with her.”
She said she turned a couple of tricks with men to get her children what they needed. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t have anybody to watch my two middle kids.” She said she would go to relatives’ houses to bathe. “I could take a bath at relatives houses, but I couldn’t stay with them.” she said.
The girl dropped out of high school in her senior year. Later, she was too old to go back to high school, so Forby found an online class and paid for it so she could get her GED.
“I went back to school and found a job which I worked long hours at,” she said. “I stayed focused on the money.”
Today the woman has five children. She and her mom are friends, but “she don’t do nothing for me.”
The woman credits Forby with helping her financially, physically and emotionally. She said Forby was the only person the young woman could count on.
The woman said the shelter Forby is trying to open is sorely needed in the community.
“I see young people walking in the streets late at night and early in the morning. I see young girls out there, too. They need someone to help them. I am happy Miss Vicky is opening a shelter,” she said.
He turned his life around
Tyrone Miller was 16 when his mother put him out because he didn’t follow any rules and constantly disrespected her. He said he put himself on the streets with his negative attitude. He didn’t realize until he was there how lonely it was and what a constant struggle it is just to survive.
“I was disrespecting my mom and she got tired of it and put me out. I guess you could say I couldn’t respect nobody,” said Miller, now 19. What was it like living on the streets? “Horrible,” he said. “I hung out during the day with friends and in the evening I would see whose house I could sleep at.” He dropped out of school in the 11th grade.
Eventually, he found out people he thought were his friends and family that he felt he could count on were not there for him.
“I felt like I was all alone. I had family, but they wouldn’t help me out,” he said. That’s when he found Forby. He said “Miss Vicky” is like a second mother to him.
“She told me to make it right with my momma. And, while I was homeless she helped me get everything I needed,” Miller said. “She paid for hotels, food, helped me get in school ... everything.
At the Emerson Park Youth Build School, Miller learned how to get and keep a job, and how to be more respectful of his mother and other people, he said. He said Emerson Park was a huge blessing to him.
“She’s doing the right thing to help more homeless youths,” Miller said.
Assistance is scarce
Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Network for Youth in Washington, D.C., said more than 1 million young people experience homelessness for a week or longer each year. They are between 14 and 24 years old.
Some of the reasons teens become homeless are domestic violence, financial problems, adult substance abuse, adult mental illness, or the teen comes out as LGBT and is rejected by his or her family. Also some teens exit the juvenile or foster care systems and find themselves homeless, she said.
Bardine described homeless teens as “the invisible homeless.” Unlike homeless adults, they are not as easy to spot.
She said the Homeless Children and Youth Act needs to be amended to provide more assistance to homeless teens and align it with other federal programs, such as the Homeless Assistance Act, Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, and Violence against Women Act — all programs under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Currently, there’s only $119 million allocated each year by HUD to help homeless youths across the country, she said.
If you run away from home at age 15 or 16 and no one will give you money, but maybe they will give you a place to live, what are you going to do? Maybe you will turn some tricks and do some shoplifting.
Sister Julia Huiskamp, East St. Louis social worker
“When you compare this to the number of teen homeless youths, you are nowhere near meeting the need,” she said.
Bardine said HUD is focused on providing housing and not on the resources young people need. “We need services to help them through high school, to enter college and to transition into becoming independent adults.”
Teens who become homeless usually only need housing for a short period of time, Bardine said. They need jobs, job training, education, to be taught life skills, to do budgets, and be shown how to cook and clean so they can earn a living wage to pay their bills.
“All young people who have experienced homelessness have experienced trauma before and while they are homeless. A lot of people are sexually assaulted or are sex trafficked or labor trafficked while they are homeless,” Bardine said.
The now 24-year-old woman, who was homeless at 16, said she didn’t know about the resources that are available to homeless teens. That’s because she didn’t speak up or ask for help.
“I never wanted to reach out to people and ask any questions or tell them about my situation until one day I met a bus driver at Emerson Park. I was pregnant with my fifth baby. I started volunteering at Emerson Park. I spent a couple of nights at Miss Vicky’s house. She gave me food and clothes and helped me to get resources to go to school. If you don’t speak up, you won’t get help,” she said.
Her message to homeless teens is: “Get out of that situation. Go look for people (who can help). I have been at Emerson Park since I was 16. I never wanted to reach out until I met that bus driver,” she said.
Carolyn P. Smith: 618-239-2503