What image comes to mind when one thinks of the homeless? Typically, that image is a man wearing rags, unshaven and sleeping on a cardboard box on a city sidewalk. Sometimes that image is a woman carrying her possessions in shopping bags, wandering the streets and muttering to herself. Seldom does one picture a young person. But in fact, youth are among the chronic homeless.
“It is estimated on any given night there may be 2,500 kids under the age of 18 living on the streets in metro Atlanta, and they are hidden in plain view,” said Simone Joye, founder and executive director of Young People Matter in Stone Mountain.
YPM is one of the few organizations that does outreach and provides shelter exclusively to unaccompanied homeless youth in the metro area. These runaways and throwaways often bounce from place to place, surviving on their own or in groups on the streets.
Joye added: “No child should ever have to sleep on the streets. When they do, they are at greater risk for exploitation and abuse.”
A recent report from the National Center on Family Homelessness ranks Georgia 41 out of the 50 states in child homelessness. The report, titled America’s Youngest Outcasts, states that more than 1.6 million children and youth, or one in 45, are homeless every year in America. About 45,500 of them are Georgians.
Quite often, the youth desperately in need of shelter is a 16-year-old boy has been kicked out of the home.
“But there is no typical case or profile,” Joye explained. “Sometimes it’s a 17-year-old girl who just got off a Greyhound bus, lured here with the promise of being in a music video. Sometimes it’s the child of a prostitute, a girl or boy escaping sexual abuse at home, or a kid from Seattle who thought he could meet [the rapper] Ludacris. They are Black, White, from parents who said ‘take my kid because I can’t deal with him anymore.’”
Joye, whose background includes a lifetime of volunteerism, had previously worked with young victims of sexual abuse and exploita tion—some as young as 12 years old. She started providing shelter in her living room (and garage when there was no more room in the house) for runaways and throwaways before establishing YPM.
Her organization recently received a federal grant totaling more than $540,000 to operate an emergency 24-hour youth shelter in Stone Mountain. The Open Hearts Youth Shelter provides short-term haven, food, medical care and counseling for 10- to 18-year-old homeless youth.
When YPM encounters one of these young people in need of help, Joye said her team must act quickly. State law permits shelters to house minors up to 72 hours, during which they must make every effort to contact the child’s parent or guardian. After that period, the organization must contact state authorities.
In best-case scenarios, YPM is able to resolve family disputes and reunite the youth with his parent. In more challenging cases, YPM works toward finding long-term shelter solutions if the youth cannot return home. Some options include Job Corps, the military or long-term transitional programs—sometimes in another state.
These youth are quite resourceful while living on the streets, according to Joye. She recalled an incident involving a 16-year-old who sought her help to find a job. After having trouble contacting his parents to obtain permission, the boy broke down in tears and revealed that he was homeless.
He took her to where he was living; it turned out to be an abandoned house in Lithonia, she recalled.
“There were about eight kids living in the house, she said, reliving the amazement of what she witnessed. “It was like a village. What boggled my mind was that they were getting up in the morning and going to school as if there was nothing wrong.”
Despite their resilience, these homeless youth face many dangers while living on their own. For example, there are the dangers of becoming sexually exploited in exchange for food, clothing and shelter. Some youth become drug dealers to meet their basic needs. And few are able to complete their high school education.
Many of them develop a “façade of toughness,” Joye said. But their circumstances leave them emotionally scarred from feeling unloved. “It’s tough on the streets,” she added, “but it’s often easier than living with a step-father who rapes you.”