Youth homelessness in Philadelphia has long been considered a crisis. Four to six thousand youths are currently homeless or in a state of housing instability in the city, according to some estimates. Nearly half of those kids identify as queer or LGBTQ.
“There’s some youth who prefer to actually live on the streets than be in a shelter. That’s how bad the system is right now,” said Donald Jackson, 23, who was formerly homeless. “Breaking the cycle of homelessness and giving youth the chance to succeed is so important.”
City and nonprofit leaders are hoping to help more youths break that cycle by tailoring it to their specific needs. To that end, the city plans to provide an additional $700,000 to social service organizations that help youths up to age 24, City Council members Helen Gym, Jannie Blackwell and Allan Domb announced Tuesday at a news conference.
It’s the first time the city has ever budgeted funds specifically for youth homelessness — a group that is considered particularly vulnerable to problems like prostitution, sexual abuse, criminal behavior, drug addiction and even suicide.
Jackson, who spoke at City Hall about his experiences, is one of the lucky ones who was able to break free of the cycle. He became homeless at age 18 when he was tossed from his home after an altercation with his mother. He found a new home with his uncle, but wound up back on the streets after the uncle lost the house.
After he got a bed and support through Covenant House and Valley Youth House, he was able to start rising to independence, working two jobs, seven days a week. Now he is working as a care outreach specialist at Action Wellness, an AIDS/HIV nonprofit, and has his own apartment. But he said programs for youths need some drastic improvements.
“The services we have now aren’t exactly supportive of what the youth need, especially minority LGBTQ youth,” he said. “We need to make changes that will actually be for youth. It takes someone who knows what the struggle is.”
The new funding will go toward a collaboration between five local social service providers: Covenant House PA, Pathways PA, Valley Youth House, Youth Service, and the LGBT-focused Attic Youth Center,
“None of us can do all of these services," said Tom Harrington, president and CEO of Valley Youth House, “but each of has expertise in different areas and we want to coordinate our efforts better so kids aren’t getting lost in the cracks.”
The new funding is expected to help provide 25 crisis beds (which could serve 150-200 youth), 25 rapid re-housing beds with six months rental assistance, two slots of 24-hour crisis day care, job training and employment support for 75 homeless youth, and specialized counseling and mentoring for 40 LGBTQ youth, officials said.
John Ducoff, executive director of Covenant House PA, said a bed means more than just a place to sleep.
“A bed is an opportunity, a safe place for a young person to stay, to get hot food, a shower, as well as an opportunity to get services and get connected to the help they need to transform their life,” he said.
Working with youth definitely presents unique challenges, said Sara Semborksi, a young adult residence service coordinator with Project HOME, but it's also a group that has special potential.
“The needs are just different,” she said, adding that some youths are more “resilient” for their experiences and develop an attitude of “these adverse situations have not destroyed me, I can do anything.”
“A lot of them are self-motivated in ways that the adult population is not. A lot them are working, they’re in school, they worked really hard to be eligible for these programs,” she said. “And now a lot of them really want to help other youths, they’re on nonprofit boards. They just have really big hearts.”