Shelter from the Storm

Jason Graves came to the Off the Streets Program last year. The high-school senior plans to attend culinary school after graduation. // Photograph by Erik Howard

An unshaven man in tattered sneakers and a dingy coat extending a coin cup is often the image we conjure up when we think of a homeless person. Actually, that profile doesn’t represent the majority of people considered homeless.

According to the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, one in three homeless people in Michigan is a child. Nationally, teen homelessness rose to 761,000 in 2008 from 550,000 in 2002, The New York Times reported.

Recent surveys have attributed part of the surge in homeless youth to the weak economy. “What I think that is happening is they [teens] are feeling the stress in their home,” says Celia Thomas, vice president of Matrix Human Services, Barat Child and Family Services Division, which includes the Off the Streets Program in Detroit. “Sometimes, the whole family becomes homeless and the teenager is the hardest one to place.”

Adolescents in a homeless family can slip between the cracks and can’t stay with the family for a number of reasons. Shelters lack space, for one thing. And, cruel as it seems, friends and family don’t want to take on the anticipated burden of housing a teen.

Jim Perlaki, vice president of external relations for Common Ground, says their Royal Oak shelter is seeing an increase in homeless teens. (In January, of 21 beds at Common Ground, 19 were taken.) He surmises that the economy is a contributing factor. But he says that the perceived increase also could be due to the effects of the economic crunch squeezing resources at other area agencies and shelters.

Common Ground offers shelter to young people ages 10 to 23, but it can be more difficult, Perlaki says, for teens 17 and older to find help.

Odds are against teens who are forced to survive on the streets. Finding a warm place to sleep is a cakewalk compared to the dangers homeless youths face.

“When we have taken in young people, they have told us stories like sleeping in cars, sleeping in empty houses that have been abandoned or burned out,” Thomas says. “We’ve had situations in which teens have reported that they were in flophouses forced into prostitution.”

It’s difficult to believe that young people experience situations that even most adults don’t see, but it’s a grim reality for 17-year-old Kiera Ervan of Detroit. Ervan left home at 16 because of friction with her stepfather and lack of support from her mother. For more than a year, she bounced from place to place, staying with friends and acquaintances. The teenager also tried to continue high school while being homeless, but eventually dropped out. “I couldn’t focus at school while I was thinking about where I was going to lay my head at each night,” she says.

Finally, on one fateful day in January, she had enough. “I couldn’t keep doing it anymore. I was at my breaking point,” Ervan says. “I’m 17. It’s not too late for me. I have to do something.”

Through a social worker, Ervan was admitted into the Off the Streets program. “I keep praying to God, to keep steering me the right away. I feel like I’m accomplishing something by being here [the Off the Streets Program],” she said in January, although — as with many teens — whether she would stay was uncertain.

In 2009, Off the Streets emergency shelter housed 147 youths. The program aids teens from 13 to 17 who either ran away, are homeless, or are in danger of becoming homeless.

Off the Streets has made a significant impact on those lucky enough to be admitted. Jason Graves is one such young person. A year ago, the 18-year-old Detroiter came to the program after leaving home because of family issues; he was feeling the pressure of his family’s economic woes. Today, with the support of the Off the Streets staff, Graves is enrolled in his last year of high school and planning to attend culinary school after graduation.

Despite the additional problems homeless youths have, Thomas reminds the community that they still are like any other teenagers struggling with the transition from childhood to adulthood.

“It’s not a new story for a young person to have difficulty. Adolescence is difficult,” Thomas says. “But economic times like this, and all the factors that come along with it, make adolescence that much more challenging.”