“I was alone, living out of my car in the Walmart Parking lot for two months.” Keenan (whose name has been changed) was just 17.
Keenan’s father was never around while he was growing up. In early 2017, Keenan’s mother left Florida to help his brother who was facing criminal charges in another state. Keenan stayed with his grandmother until June 2017, when her boyfriend kicked him out after an argument over the privacy and safety of Keenan’s belongings. From there, Keenan went from couch to couch at friends’ and other relatives’ homes but eventually found it easiest and safest to sleep in his car outside of a Walmart in Bradenton, FL.
This is a glimpse into a reality all too common right here in our community. In 2016 it was estimated that there were anywhere between 400 and 600 unaccompanied youth in Sarasota County alone. Homeless young adults, ages 16 – 24, come from a history of insufficient support systems, various types of abuse, episodes in and out of the foster care system, parents with addiction, and homelessness as children. As young adults age out of these situations, they are often expected to become a productive member of society on their own. However, the extreme privilege gaps they experience between their peers make them vulnerable to a cycle of poverty and homelessness for generations to come.
Unaccompanied youth are usually scared to seek out services out of fear; fear of ridicule from peers, fear of rejection, and fear of being denied services and/or sent back home, which, especially when evacuating from an abusive situation, is not an option. They are preyed upon at adult homeless shelters and in homeless camps by older homeless men and women. In addition, their health needs often go unmet, further exacerbating their problems. Unaccompanied youth are underrepresented and largely unidentified, however, research shows that once discovered, early engagement in services can prevent them from experiencing the ongoing traumas of homelessness.
Opened in March 2017, New Heights is the most comprehensive program serving unaccompanied homeless youth by offering outreach and case management services for ages 16-24, transitional housing for youth ages 18-24, and emergency shelter for women ages 18-24. New Heights participants work with their case manager to set and track goals in seven key areas: Vocation, Education, Social, Financial, Health, Leadership, and Dreams. The program is completely free for all youth – for those in transitional housing, instead of paying rent or a program fee, they put payments in a savings account that gives them a financial boost upon exiting the program. This way, the youth learn budgeting and financial life skills that will give them a head start on their journey towards sustainability and independence. In addition, monthly outings for the youth are organized and hosted by a variety of community volunteers. These outings are focused on developing social skills, cultivating responsibility and punctuality, exposing participants to various careers and cultural experiences, and creating enjoyable memories.
Keenan never knew the true power of community until he learned about Harvest House from his Take Stock in Children mentor. Christie, his case manager at Harvest House, describes Keenan as “a very driven young man. He’s always wanted a better life and nothing will stop him from earning it for himself. He’s an introvert and can come off as a bit shy at first, but on move-in day, he couldn’t stop thanking us. For the first time in his life, he had his own room, a community of peers overcoming similar obstacles, and a network of support that is here to lift him up from every angle.”
This young man, at the tender age of 17, was left behind, kicked out, and alone, yet still took responsibility for his destiny. He didn’t let unfortunate circumstances send him down the wrong path or kill his dreams of success. With the help of his network of support, he maintained a great job, graduated from high school, and is now pursuing a Registered Nursing degree as he’d always dreamed. He’s now working as a Patient Care Technician in Sarasota and moved out of New Heights two weeks ago into his own home.
Keenan’s advice to any peers that might be homeless or at-risk: “I encourage you to apply to New Heights. This program will give you a safe place to stay and love and support that you wouldn’t normally get.”