June 11, 2012

The young and the homeless

Kami George, 19, poses for a portrait at Northdale Park in North Tampa, where she slept for about a week last fall. George will be on a panel of formerly homeless teens speaking Wednesday morning at the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County’s first youth forum at the Straz Center in downtown Tampa.

Alex Williams, 18, poses for a portrait in her new bedroom at a North Tampa apartment complex that provides housing for people recovering from homelessness.

They sleep at friends' homes and on park benches. They often don't fit into the criteria for traditional networks that serve the homeless — only a few shelters will accept youths age 13 to 24. But the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County wants to change that. The organization will host a public forum Wednesday where formerly homeless teens will talk of their experiences in hopes of helping the community come up with solutions. Some of them are featured in a documentary-style film to be shown during the event.

Gov. Rick Scott is expected to attend as well as local officials and homeless advocates. The public is also invited.

Kathy Wiggins, a social worker who has helped many homeless youth, saw that no one else was serving this population. As coordinator for homeless youth at Camelot Community Care, she now assists young people in getting an education using seed money from the Lazydays Employee Foundation.

Alex Williams, 18, poses for a portrait in her new bedroom at a North Tampa apartment complex that provides housing for people recovering from homelessness.
Eckerd, a nonprofit organization with youth programs and services across the United States, will begin to oversee the program next month.

Since the project started two years ago, it has grown to fit a need that had been overlooked, Wiggins said. During the past year, she has taken 90 referrals from school social workers across Hillsborough County and about 50 more from the Salvation Army and other shelters. She screens young people in need, talking to their parents and guardians, to ensure that the program focuses on those with no where else to go who have dreams for a better life. The Tampa Bay Times recently met with three of them and listened to them speak of their experiences.

Kami George, 19

More than six months ago, Wiggins connected Kami George with a couple, both attorneys, in Davis Islands. They invited her to move in with them and told her she could stay until she gets stable. George has since gotten her GED and a part-time job.

They want to be a family, she said, but she wonders what that really means. "I've never said I love you to anyone." They want her to be successful. "Which I'm going to try to be with everything I have," she said.

She says she never got to know her parents, but has lived over the years with her paternal grandmother and extended family members in Tennessee, North Carolina and parts of Florida. A family member could not be reached for this story.

In her words

"I was 17 the first time I got kicked out. I stayed with a friend. When I was 18, I lived in a park. It was across from Gaither High School. I had dropped out, but I still went back every day to get lunch. There were very few people I told. I tried to be the cool kid. I walked around the school — no one noticed. I was kind of invisible. I thought, 'You know what? I really am invisible.'

I had nothing to do but sit around the park all day. I was a little too scared to take big stuff from the gas stations. The majority of the time it was food. Like chips. Or little cans of food. It wasn't like I felt great about it but I didn't see it as a bad thing. In my mind-set, I didn't care. I was like, what could happen to me? Nothing could be worse than this . . .

I really wasn't a good kid. I would try to get in trouble so I could stay after school a little bit longer and a little bit longer, so I didn't have to go home, 'cause I knew what I was going to go home to.

Alex Williams, 18

Last week, Alex moved into an apartment off Fletcher Avenue, after Wiggins arranged the move. The complex is part of a recovery program and includes people recovering from drug addiction as well as those overcoming homelessness, like Williams.

Her advice to teens in similar situations: "There is help out there. Ask for it. Tell a teacher or a school counselor. You feel like you're alone. I can do this on my own. I don't trust no one. But I would tell them someone can take care of you better than you can. That's why the youth forum is important — to make sure there is help so when they reach out for it, they don't get their hand slapped."

In her words

I started running away when I was 16. At one time, I was living in Plant City along a street. It was under some A/C thing in the middle of nowhere. It seemed like a good place to chill. I only went there at night. During the day, I walked a lot. It's crazy how far I'd walk. Sometimes I would have to psych myself out. I'd tell myself I'm just going around the corner. You know it's not around the corner. When I was walking guys would stop me.

Hey there mama, what you doin? You got a boyfriend? What's your name?

One time I had flip-flops that broke off and I had them safety-pinned. Dude pulled up and said: You need some shoes. People take advantage of your situation. At first it's like whatever, but it's hot and I had nothing to eat. They'd give me something to eat and take me to their home. I'd do whatever they wanted me to do. Sometimes I'd watch their kids. One older guy had I don't know how many kids.

Out of the whole time one lady picked me up. I had fractured my ankle and the next day was my 17th birthday. I was sad. She said she was late for work but God told her to stop. She said she knew the manager at McDonald's and could get me a job. But then, I don't really stay in one place. Some of the dudes were jerks. As long as I did what they wanted me to do, I was fine. I didn't say much. Finally I got into a shelter. Man, I don't ever want to go back to the streets.

Christopher Martinez Rodriguez, 18

Three months ago, Wiggins met Chris Rodriguez through a school social worker. Rodriguez, whom Wiggins called a good student with a 3.1 GPA, was having problems at home and said he could no longer live there. Wiggins said she spoke with Rodriguez's father, but he could not be reached this week by the Times. Now, Wiggins is helping Rodriguez get a cellphone and a stable home so he can attend Armwood High School as a senior in the fall. One day, he hopes to be a neurosurgeon and open a homeless shelter.

In his words

"I always knew. It's not really different than a person being straight. It's just that I like boys. But I had the same type of dad every other boy has: I want my son to play football. I want my son to be a man's man.

At first it kind of sucked. I was a little kid. All little kids want is acceptance from parents.

... Like, I wear girls' jeans because I think they look nice on me. And sometimes I wear girls' shirts because they're tighter. He didn't like that. He hated it.

… After a while I started to fight him back. He would get frustrated. I didn't feel comfortable at home.

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