Written by Phil Cerroni
By Phil Cerroni
People rarely fix problems they don’t see on a regular basis, and they rarely do anything about problems they can ignore – a homeless dog will roam the streets, but a homeless teenager will shuttle himself from couch to couch, motel room to motel room – maybe that is why we have a $6 million animal shelter while teenagers catch a night’s sleep at the skate park. But people are working to change that.
In 2009, five women, calling themselves the Advocates for Homeless Teens, met with Irving Mayor Herbert Gears and were declared the official liaison for homeless teenagers. Since then they have worked tirelessly to help disadvantaged teenagers become the successful adults they have to potential to be. What separates the Advocates from most organizations that reach out to homeless kids is that they do not focus on all teens living on the street but only on those who are working to stay in high school and earn their diploma.
Of the roughly 1,000 homeless or “unaccompanied youth” who come through Irving every year, 200-250 of them are in the public high school system where classmates help as best they can, bringing them food and other necessities, but the efforts of a few well meaning kids is just a drop in the ocean of what could be done, however.
“Students that don’t graduate from high school have a high probability of being on welfare, food stamps, becoming incarcerated,” Dr. Lori Davis, one of the Advocates said. “We end up paying more through taxes after they miss the opportunity to graduate. It’s better to invest a small amount of money now to help them graduate and help them have a better future.”
The advocates’ first major success came only a year after their formation when the City of Irving awarded them a $246,000 grant to build a single family home for these invisible teenagers. It was to be a place where teens would have a stable home and all the security that comes along with it. This house was not to be a shelter. Residents were required to meet high standards including random drug screenings, part-time employment and full-time enrollment in school, even during summer vacation, in order to live there.
The project was received enthusiastically by both the City and local advocacy groups. IISD promised to partner with the advocates, and the City of Irving gave them an empty double lot on Maltby Dr. on which to build their house. The neighbors on the street were thrilled with the idea, but the people living one street over, frightened by phantasmal stereotypes, were less than thrilled, voicing concerns that these students were criminals.
“We had a neighborhood meeting at the elementary school. And the common denominator was that the boys in the residential center that we planned to build would be junior delinquents , disrupting everything in the neighborhood and [would] rape their daughters and their granddaughters,” Johnston, a member of the Advocates and director of the Main Place, another outreach for homeless teens, said sardonically.
After assuaging the neighbors’ fears, Johnson fumed at residents who still opposed the home’s construction. “[They said] that’s a great idea … go put it in somebody else’s neighborhood, not in our backyard,” Johnston related the residents’ final decision.
Although the Advocates could have fought the decision, Johnson knew it was a battle not worth winning. “Why do you want to put children into a neighborhood where all they’re going to face is rejection. That would benefit no one,” she said.
Chris Allen, Chairman of the board for the La Buena Vida Foundation, warned that residents squelched not only an important social service but a revolutionary way of tackling the affliction of teenage homelessness.
“This is actually a leadership program, Allen said. “We have a program and curriculum that take extraordinary young people who are in extraordinarily bad situations and allow them to reach their full potential.”
Unable to come to an understanding with the neighborhood, the advocates abandoned the idea of a house, for the time being. Instead, they began looking for multi-family buildings, where unconventional, high density living situations are more acceptable. This has proven to be as monumental challenge as finding building a house. The Advocates must now vie with various commercial interests who want to turn the apartment communities into cash cows.
In an attempt to carry their mission forward in one way or another, the Advocates rented a series of apartments, letting teenage boys stay there with much the same regulations as they had for the house. Although the project lasted only 2 years, the Advocates consider it a remarkable success – only one of the four boys who entered the program did not finish, and the others graduated with commendations – one, after raising his GPA from 1.7 to over 3.0, was offered a full scholarship to UNT. Although a success, after adding in rent and utilities, acquiring individual apartments not only has lesser impact than owning a property but is very expensive as well.
As it stands now, the Advocates still do not have a house, and their attempts to find a small apartment building still prove futile.
In a time when Irving strives to become a steward of the environment and an advocate for its people, we cannot forget our responsibility to those who never knew they had a voice. Until then, advocates are as hopeless as the teenagers they serve, and their talents and energy are buried, like the teens’ treasures, in coffee cans on the side of the road.