Housing Teens a Challenge for Homeless Shelters
The growing number of homeless families is raising concerns "about how to house newborns, single dads with kids, toddlers -- and teen-age boys," reported The Charlotte Observer. According to Charlotte, N.C., homeless service providers, families with older children are seeking shelter, raising "the prospect of teenage boys around adult single women and teenage girls," the article said. To keep families together, the local Salvation Army shelter has opened a dorm room for teenage boys and space for single fathers with children. Despite misgivings, another shelter without space for teenage boys places them with adult men, the article said. Teens, who are "more likely to show anger," are changing homeless service dynamics, said one local leader.
Shelters Struggle With Housing for Teen Boys
By Jeri Fischer Krentz
The Charlotte Observer
February 10, 2005
As more families become homeless, cities such as Charlotte are confronting a dilemma: Where to put the teenage boys?
They're too young to sleep in homeless shelters with men they don't know; too old to share shelter space with single women.
"It's a burgeoning issue in cities around the country," says Michael Stoops of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless. "It's expensive to run a shelter for families. It takes a lot of work to operate. But it's the reality of who are the homeless in 2005."
Last year, families with children comprised 40 percent of the nation's homeless. They are the fastest-growing segment of that population, nationally and here. With that comes new worries about how to house newborns, single dads with kids, toddlers -- and teenage boys.
Last fall, the Salvation Army emergency shelter in Charlotte opened a new dorm down the hall from the women's space. Eight teenage boys sleep in a small room with brown wooden bunk beds and bare blue walls. Their few belongings sit on dressers: A model airplane, a spelling book, the board game "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."
So many boys in one room makes it hard to settle down at night, and there's little of the privacy teens crave.
But before, families often had to choose between sending their sons elsewhere, or facing a night together on the street.
"For years we talked about this as the No. 1 gap in homeless services," says Deronda Metz, director of social services for the Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte. "It's a national sheltering issue. But year after year, nothing was done about it. We spent so much time telling mothers with teenage boys 'no," it became routine."
Metz says some staff members didn't think they could open a teen dorm. Others thought they couldn't not do it.
"We were divided for obvious reasons," she says. "The prospect of teenage boys around adult single women and teenage girls ... Teens have their own issues."
Metz says they wanted to keep families together. Across the country, a survey of mayors showed that an average of 32 percent of shelter requests by homeless families are estimated to have gone unmet in 2004. And the survey said requests by homeless families were expected to increase in 2005.
Of the more than 200 people on any given night at the Salvation Army shelter -- the largest facility for homeless women in Charlotte -- children total nearly 50 percent. The Salvation Army has also opened space for single fathers with children.
"It used to be we didn't see so many older kids," says Dearsley Vernon, head of A Child's Place, a program for homeless children that works with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
"You could assume that newly established, younger families would be vulnerable. But as economic realities changed, we began seeing more established families with older children. Now we're seeing growing numbers of middle and high school children."
Homeless families, experts say, have unique problems.
"Teenage children don't adapt as well," says Maj. Ward Matthews, executive director of the Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte. "They're more likely to show anger and to act on that anger in a damaging way. This is a new dynamic in dealing with homelessness for us."
At the Salvation Army, Matthews says, they're trying to do more than provide teens with a bed. That's a treatment, he says. Not a solution.
Already, a counselor comes twice weekly to meet with the boys and hear what's on their minds. Metz says she hopes to start other programs, too, including a mentoring effort with adults from the community.
"There's a whole rehabilitative piece that we need to add."
Across the region, the situation is just as frustrating.
Pilgrims' Inn in Rock Hill keeps families together in rooms of their own. "The teens are the ones who don't like the 6 p.m. curfew," says director Gina Amato. "And sometimes the moms want them to be able to spend the night at their friends'. But we have to try to keep the rules the same for everybody."
When mothers come to the Union County Community Shelter with teenage boys, director Don English says his hands are tied.
"We have one large sleeping area for 14 men," he says. "The women and children's area is 16 feet by 16 feet. If they stay here, the teenage boys have to go in with the adult men, and we don't like that."
English says his organization is trying to build a new facility with space specifically designed for families. Right now, figuring out where to put teenage boys is one of his biggest challenges.
"Whenever a boy gets to where he shouldn't be exposed to other women in their underwear, that's when it gets hard for us," he says. "But if families can't find anything in Mecklenburg County, I tell them to come back and we'll find a way to make it work. If I have to put the teenage boy on a cot in our dining room, I will."
In Gastonia, With Friends offers emergency housing for homeless and runaway teens, ages 10 through 17. Its nine beds are usually full.
"The homeless families stay at the Salvation Army and the young men stay with us," says director Pat Krikorian. "It's hard enough being homeless with your kids, and then we have to split up the families. It's a very sad situation."
In Charlotte, Charlotte Emergency Housing accepts families with teens, but clients must be referred by social workers and must work at least 30 hours a week.
Families can also stay together in Salvation Army transitional housing, a program with 10 rooms set aside for people close to getting out of the shelter system.
And teens can stay for up to 14 days at The Relatives Crisis Shelter. With nine beds for runaways, homeless teens and kids from families in crisis, it stays near capacity.
On a recent day, the Salvation Army's teen dorm is quiet. Buses took the boys to their schools that morning. They'll bring them back in the afternoon. Erica Roberson, 34, sleeps in a darkened connecting room: In exchange for this private space, she monitors the boys at night.
"My job is to keep all the teenage boys in line," she says. "Getting them to go to bed at night and make their beds in the morning are my biggest challenges."
Roberson arrived at the shelter in November after losing her job and apartment. Her charges in the teen room range in age from 13 to 17 and include her 14-year-old son, Ramond. After getting into trouble at his middle school, he attends an alternative school that the kids call "boot camp."
"The kids' curfew is 7:30 p.m. and they can't go anywhere on or off campus without the parent," Roberson says. "But teens want their own room. They want their own freedom. They want to be with their friends. It's normal teenage stuff."
Lewis Hall agrees. Lewis, 14, a seventh-grader at Marie G. Davis middle school, stayed in the Salvation Army's transitional housing program with his mom before moving into a three-bedroom apartment two weeks ago.
"There are so many little kids here and they always wanted to play," he says.
Sometimes, the only thing left to do was dribble a basketball in the parking lot.
NATIONALLY IN 2004:
--800,000 people were homeless on any given night in the United States.
--Families with children comprised 40 percent of the homeless population.
--Requests for emergency shelter by homeless families increased by 7 percent.
--An average of 32 percent of shelter requests by homeless families are estimated to have gone unmet.
CHARLOTTE IN 2004:
--5,000 people homeless on any given night.
--2,000 shelter beds available.
Sources: U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Coalition for the Homeless and Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte
WANT TO HELP? You can find the Observer's Giving Guide, a list of needs in the Charlotte region and how to help, at www.charlotte.com/living. Here are some other agencies throughout the region:
--A Child's Place, P.O. Box 33302, Charlotte, NC 28233; (704) 343-3790.
--Charlotte Emergency Housing, P.O. Box 9373, Charlotte, NC 28299; (704) 335-5488.
--Pilgrims' Inn, P.O. Box 11328, Rock Hill, SC 29731; (803) 327-4227.
--The Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte, 534 Spratt St., Charlotte, NC 28206; (704) 716-2769.
--The Relatives, C/O Alexander Youth Network, P.O. 220632, Charlotte, NC 28222; (704) 377-0602.
--Union County Community Shelter, 311 E. Jefferson St., Monroe, NC 28112; (704) 289-5300.
--With Friends, 2098 Keith Drive, Gastonia, NC 28054; (704) 866-7774.
--Room In The Inn, sponsored by the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte, is a winter-only ministry for homeless men, women and children where congregations take turns sheltering them for a night. It ends March 31. To help, call (704) 347-0278.