‘Let’s start small and build up’

There is hope for dis­placed teens, say youth cri­sis work­ers

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Cas­san­dra Day

MID­DLE­TOWN — Carissa Con­way, direc­tor of the Women and Fam­i­lies Cen­ter, solidly be­lieves there is hope for youth whose dis­tress­ful fam­ily sit­u­a­tions, cou­pled with a lack of a com­plete post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion, have pro­pelled them into home­less­ness.

“We un­der­stand and we get the dy­nam­ics of run­away and home­less youth,” she said about staff at the Meri­den-based non­profit that ser­vices Mid­dle­sex County, Walling­ford and Meri­den.

“You don’t wake up and de­cide you want to get into this work be­cause you want to work with home­less youth, or those trau­ma­tized by sex­ual as­sault. You do this be­cause the work means some­thing to you,” said Con­way, whose or­ga­ni­za­tion is one of the state’s re­cip­i­ents of a $6.6 mil­lion grant from the fed­eral Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment’s Youth Home­less­ness Demon­stra­tion Pro­gram.

Right now, there is a lit­tle­known cri­sis among young adults who, for many rea­sons are living on the street, spo­rad­i­cally in shel­ters or couch surf­ing. That in­cludes Mid­dle­town, said Ann Faust, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Coali­tion on Hous­ing and Home­less­ness in Mid­dle­town.

“Kids 17 and un­der rep­re­sent most of the home­less pop­u­la­tion, and that’s just un­ac­cept­able in our so­ci­ety,” Faust said.

Al­though many home­less peo­ple from ages 17 to 23 are con­sid­ered adults by so­ci­ety, they are far from pre­pared to be re­source­ful or even live on their own, Faust said.

“The needs of those folks are vastly dif­fer­ent from the needs of the other in­di­vid­u­als who are us­ing home­less shel­ters,” Con­way said.

Angie, 16, and Dwayne, 23, are two of the more than a dozen young peo­ple North End res­i­dent Nur Fitz­patrick has been help­ing for the last

two years, she said. Angi and Dwayne asked their last names be with­held for this story.

Both grew up in troubled house­holds and haven’t had a healthy fam­ily sit­u­a­tion, they said.

“The main prob­lem (be­sides a living sit­u­a­tion) is hav­ing some­where to go; to chill,” Dwayne said. “Not hang­ing out. We mainly want to have a place to go.”

He also wishes he and oth­ers had guid­ance from a men­tor or car­ing adult — some­thing that’s not easy to find, he said.

“With par­ents, they can pro­tect you from do­ing things and all that, but I feel you’re sup­posed to make mis­takes,” said Dwayne, who ad­mits he has mis­stepped a num­ber of times in the past be­cause of his sit­u­a­tion. He feels so com­fort­able with the sense of fam­ily he ex­pe­ri­ences when Angie, he and the other home­less teens en­joy a sim­ple con­ver­sa­tion with Fitz­patrick while they all pre­pare din­ner.

“It’s like hav­ing a mother in a way that’s show­ing you what’s good to do, but it’s not some­one who is go­ing to drive you crazy,” Angie said.

“I came here the first day — it was rain­ing,” Angie said. “All day, I wanted to watch a movie so bad but I couldn’t.”

By co­in­ci­dence, (Fitz­patrick) “came home and said, ‘You can go in there and watch a movie if you want be­cause I’m go­ing to step out.’ That was it” — all Fitz­patrick had to say to make her happy.

“For real?” Fitz­patrick asked as Angie re­lated the story. “That’s cute. And it was a good movie, too. Won­der Woman!”

Men­tors, when they don’t have par­ents or guardians around, Angie said, are “a good thing to have for youth that don’t have any­one, be­cause they don’t know who to look up to. They look up to movies and mu­sic, and they go down the wrong path be­cause they feel like they can’t live up to that un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tion,” she said.

Pro­grams like those of­fered by the Woman and Chil­dren’s Cen­ter can al­low dis­placed teens feel some mod­icum of com­fort and be­long­ing, Con­way said. Also, with ed­u­ca­tion comes em­pow­er­ment.

With the grant, the cen­ter will be able to open a tran­si­tional living pro­gram for 18to 22-year-old home­less and un­sta­bly housed young peo­ple. It will pay for six beds, she said.

“The goal of the project will be to arm young adults with ev­ery­thing they need to live in­de­pen­dently,” Con­way said.

When they first step into the of­fice look­ing for ser­vices, youth will work with lia­sons on an in­di­vid­ual ser­vice plan and set up goals, she said. But each youth can only take ad­van­tage of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s of­fer­ings for a year and a half.

“Eigh­teen months is not a lot of time when you’re look­ing at youth who may not have had the same skills taught to them as many of the oth­ers you have in the com­mu­nity,” Con­way said.

Home­less young peo­ple of­ten end up in these cir­cum­stances and re­main there for sev­eral rea­sons, ac­cord­ing to the Part­ner­ship for Strong Com­mu­ni­ties of Hartford. Among them: flee­ing abuse at home, fear of the state Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies and foster care, avoid­ing or be­ing un­aware of lim­ited ser­vices, not be­ing con­nected to for­mal sup­ports, or be­ing re­jected or forced out of fam­ily sit­u­a­tions.

Com­pli­cat­ing the sit­u­a­tion, “18 per­cent of youth who are home­less have been sex­u­ally as­saulted or en­cour­aged to ex­change sex for drugs, food, a place to stay and cloth­ing,” Faust said.

The fed­eral funds will al­low the state to cre­ate more re­sources for rapid re­hous­ing. “Many times, youth are re­ally re­silient and they do have skills, and what they need is sup­port like a se­cu­rity de­posit and first month’s rent,” Faust said.

“I’m big pro­po­nent of let’s start small and build up, but I also think six beds is a re­ally great start for us,” Con­way said.

There was only $194,000 avail­able from HUD to ap­ply for, she said, and a por­tion of those monies will sup­port a 24-hour staff per­son at the tran­si­tional hous­ing cen­ter.

“I’m also charged with find­ing an ad­di­tional $19,000 year for five years to keep this pro­gram run­ning,” Con­way said. “That’s huge! But we’re fill­ing a huge hole in the com­mu­nity. They’re here to stay here for the 18 months, we’re go­ing to pro­vide them with the case man­age­ment ser­vices, we’re go­ing to teach them ba­sic living skills, we’re go­ing to re­con­nect them with school­ing, we’re go­ing to con­nect them with em­ploy­ment.”

“No­body wants to be out­side,” Dwayne said.

For in­for­ma­tion, see anend­in­ten.org, cca-ct.org, wom­en­fam­i­lies.org, svd­mid­dle­town.org, Women and Fam­i­lies Cen­ter on Face­book or psc­hous­ing.org.

Cas­san­dra Day / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Nur Fitz­patrick, cen­ter, has been help­ing Dwayne, 23, left, and Angie, 16, along with sev­eral other home­less young peo­ple in Mid­dle­town.

Vol­un­teers check a map of the area be­fore fan­ning out to con­duct a home­less count.

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