For Young People, Homelessness is a Different Type of Struggle

Leah Binkovitz
December 12, 2016

She saw it from the bus.

One bedroom, a kitchen, a living room. It was still under construction, but when it was done, the home would be three stories tall. In certain neighborhoods, rows of wooden frames like this one fill entire blocks. Once completed, the townhomes welcome buyers looking for granite countertops and outdoor fireplaces.

But in its current form, Lala* thought, the unfinished townhome would do just fine.

It was the fourth consecutive day in August that temperatures hit 100. During the daytime Lala, 19, finds ways to stay busy and out of the searing Houston sun. That just leaves the night as a constant question. It wasn’t her first time being homeless, but it was her first time being homeless on her own. She’d left her mother’s house after a fight a few months ago. Now, figuring out where to go to sleep was never simple.

Most nights around midnight, she ventures inside one of the many homes under construction around downtown Houston. For shelter, an unfinished home isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done, and thanks to the city’s building boom, such accommodations, though spartan, are plentiful. “You’ve got to be careful because the construction people and security too, sometimes they see you,” she says. “Sometimes they don’t.” She was caught just three days earlier. The police gave her a warning.

For now, Lala regularly stays in abandoned or vacant homes known as “bandos.” Some are under construction. Others are just empty. But she’s hoping to be one of the first people to benefit from a new initiative aimed at getting homeless young adults off the streets quickly and into housing. She comes to the Salvation Army’s Young Adult Resource Center in Midtown Houston almost every day to get on the computer, get a snack and check on her housing status.

Signs at the drop-in center advertise a host of services. But for many, housing is the most critical need. (Photo credit: Kinder Institute/Leah Binkovitz)
Signs at the drop-in center advertise a host of services. But for many, housing is the most critical need. (Photo credit: Kinder Institute/Leah Binkovitz)

* * *

On this day in August, she’s feeling hopeful. After getting arrested for shoplifting shampoo, lotion and some T-shirts from Wal-Mart, she recently finished her probation. She just got a job at Jack in the Box. She’s pretty sure she’ll get housing next month, in September. In the meantime, she found a vacant home in Third Ward where she, her fiancée and a friend she considers a cousin all stay. “The one I stay in doesn’t have a refrigerator, but it has hot water,” she says. “We got a TV, and we’ve got movies to watch.”

When she first became homeless, she tried to keep up with school. But when she was told she needed to repeat a grade, she dropped out, never advancing beyond 10th grade. Without employment, and with limited educational attainment, the challenges were starting to feed off each other.

“How can you go to apply for a job if you don’t have a place to shower?” asks Rafael Sarango. “I cannot even start to tell you how difficult it is to live a life like that.”

Sarango helped create the Salvation Army center, which Lala and other 18- to 25-year-old homeless young adults can visit most days to shower, use computers and socialize. Around the facility, he’s known as “Mr. Raf” He’s said the only difference between him and his clients is that he had help along the way. Now, he wants to do the same for them.

* * *

In 2009, when Congress reauthorized legislation funding homeless assistance, it added $1.5 billion in funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus. Thanks in part to those funds, and other state and local reallocations, Houston dedicated some $102 million to homelessness prevention efforts that put a priority on housing. And all those resources seemed to be having an impact.

Homeless services have been streamlined. A permanent supportive housing program was implemented in 2012, followed by a rapid re-housing program in 2015 that has helped more than 1,000 people get off the streets quickly. The annual homeless count of Harris and Fort Bend counties has been dropping steadily. In 2015, Houston was recognized by the federal Department of Housing for “effectively” ending veteran homelessness. In 2016, there were “no unsheltered families with minor children” in Houston on the night of the annual count.

But homelessness often looks different between older and younger adults. And so do the solutions, said Sarango.

With the new housing push, service providers decided to concentrate their efforts through shelters. That meant moving many of the spots where the indigent could get meals from locations around town and into shelters. Once there, Sarango said, the idea is that “they can engage them, house them and assess them.

But there’s one problem: Young adults, in particular, are uncomfortable in shelters, Sarango said. Nationally, the median age of an individual in a shelter is 39.2 years, according to an analysis of 2010 data by the Census Bureau. Young adults often don’t feel comfortable staying with such an old population.

Sarango hears it over and over: “I don’t belong in the shelters.” But that thinking can leave homeless youths in even riskier situations. Sarango shares a recent anecdote: One young girl at the Salvation Army told him she met a guy who said she could stay with him at his home. But, in the middle of the night, he demanded sex. She refused. And so she had to leave, finding herself back out on the streets because she didn’t want to go to a shelter. Those stories aren’t unusual. “Every day,” he said, “it’s the exact same thing.”

Sarango stands inside the young adult center. (Photo credit: Kinder Institute/Leah Binkovitz)
Sarango stands inside the young adult center. (Photo credit: Kinder Institute/Leah Binkovitz)

* * *

Many young people without stable housing don’t consider themselves homeless. They couch surf. They crash with relatives for limited stays. They may trade sex for a bed.

Tracking the number of people who fall into the category of homeless youth is a major challenge.

In a study published earlier this year, the Kinder Institute calculated that about 14 percent of Houston-area young adults ages 16 to 24 neither work nor attend school, a category called “disconnected” youth. Those numbers are fairly typical among major cities. Though it’s possible to quantify disconnect youth, Sarango said it’s hard to get an accurate count of how many youth are homeless because many rely on family, friends and acquaintances for a place to sleep.

Without sleeping in a shelter or on the street, many young adults don’t meet the threshold required to access housing services. But Sarango finds ways to help them meet eligibility requirements. Young adults also need different resources and services than older adults, he said, including more and specially trained case workers and longer stays in rapid rehousing units as they work toward becoming independent.

* * *

In May, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that Houston area homeless services would receive more than $32 million in funding for new permanent supportive housing units, a program for domestic violence survivors and the first rapid rehousing program in the area aimed at young adults.

Previously, when Sarango was trying to place his clients in housing around the area, he said, the number of young adults in need overwhelmed the system. Hence, the new program was aimed specifically at young adults. Starting in August, Sarango was able to use the new funds to find his clients apartments around the city.

Through the rapid rehousing program, providers like the Salvation Army pay the rent for clients. Unlike permanent supportive housing models, the service providers are the ones signing the lease.

There’s also the Housing Choice Voucher, but Sarango described the program, administered by the Houston Housing Authority as a “beast.” When the waiting list opened for a week in mid-September after four years, the authority estimated that some 400,000 families in the area qualified. But there were only 30,000 spots available on the waiting list. So while he’s working with the Housing Authority to match his clients with set-aside units, he’s also looking to the private market. Working with landlords across the city, Sarango, said affordable apartments are getting farther and farther away from downtown Houston.

In his office, Sarango allows himself a moment of sadness as he considers the odds facing most of the kids who come to his center. On some days, the caseworkers see up to 70 clients. “For a place to stay,” he sighed, “the things they have to do.” One in four homeless youth reported trading sex in exchange for shelter or basic needs, according to one study. Many of them, he said, are “just on the edge” of homelessness, requiring only a modest push to get on their feet.

“They are clean. They are neat. They like to shower. They like to wear fresh clothes. They love to have a job,” he said. “How do you get up in the morning when your phone cannot be plugged in? How can they go to work and function from 8 to 5 when they’re falling asleep because they have to be walking around all night?”

* * *

When Lala thinks about home, she thinks of her grandmother’s house. She lived there after her mother went to prison for stabbing the father of Lala’s brother. Even though her mother told the kids to go to their room as the fight unfolded, Lala said she snuck out and saw everything, including the moment her mother sliced open his torso. Her mother went to prison for two years, giving birth to a baby while there.

Lala’s grandmother’s house in Missouri City was brick, she said, like a rich person’s home, with a big backyard. She had her own room with posters all over the walls, gifts from her grandmother.

But it’s been several years since she lived with her grandmother, and life has been tumultuous. She remembers her first time in a shelter. After her release from prison, it didn’t take long before Lala’s mother wore out her welcome with Lala’s grandmother. So she moved the family into a shelter.

After the first shelter, they moved to another one. And then another. The cockroaches stick out most in Lala’s memory.

Lala tried to keep up in school. “I just kept it to myself,” she said. “I never told anybody anything.” She went to several different high schools in different school districts, retaking the ninth grade repeatedly.

Lala started at a struggling, under-enrolled high school that was almost entirely African-American. She bounced around, including a stint at a charter for at-risk students that has since cut ties with the Houston school district amid an investigation about problems with student records. When she tried to leave the school and transfer, yet again, Lala said she was told her records from the charter were gone. By the time she made it to her fourth high school, she was still in the 10th grade; without transcripts, she couldn’t get into the grade she believed was appropriate.

Contributing to the tension was her mom’s remarriage. Lala left for a shelter, but it became challenging to make it to school on time, she said, and eventually she was kicked out of the shelter for failing to attend class. She tried to move back in with her mother, but it didn’t last. She didn’t like my lifestyle,” explained Lala, who said her mother never quite accepted her sexuality.

By one estimate, 5,000 youths in the area either leave home or are kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Lala said her mother learned via Facebook that she was a lesbian. They fought. And so she left. Homeless again, she tried to return to the shelter. That’s when she met her fiancée. A bright spot.

It was love at first sight; “a zing,” says Lala.

Now in August, six months after they met, the two spend every day together. They look out for each other as best they can. Together, they plan to move to Miami – a city she’s never visited but sounds nice – and enroll in Job Corps, a free program that helps young people complete their GEDs or high school education and get career training.

Lala wants to be a nurse. As unstable as their lives are, Lala talks about the future often – having a family, kids, a home. They go on dates, when they can, mostly to the mall. And they come to the Young Adult Resource Center.

Computers are available to those who visit the resource center. (Photo credit: Kinder Institute/Leah Binkovitz)
Computers are available to those who visit the resource center. (Photo credit: Kinder Institute/Leah Binkovitz)

* * *

It’s hard to know how many young adults like Lala there are. The Houston Coalition for the Homeless, a non-profit, conducts an annual homeless count, sending volunteers on the street to record how many homeless people they encounter. But experts say homeless youth often don’t show up in those numbers.

“Young people don’t tend to appear homeless or they go to great lengths to not appear homeless,” explained Sarah Narendorf, an associate professor with the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, adding that many young people will turn to a friend’s couch rather than the street.

The Coalition also found in its 2016 count that a large portion of the homeless population – 2,100 out of 5,726 – are in jail, more than the number actually unsheltered on the streets.

Indeed, when Narendorf and a colleague from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston created their own Youth Count 2.0 in 2015, they found that more than 10 percent of homeless youth were homeless because they had nowhere to go when they got out of jail. Connections to the juvenile justice and foster care system were disproportionately high for homeless youth. Though Lala was never in foster care, she had had run-ins with the law.

Unlike Lala, most homeless youth have completed high school or their GED, according to the study. But less than a quarter of the sample were employed. “You’re homeless, it’s hard to find a job and keep a job because you’re in a situation where you don’t have baseline stability,” said Narendorf. “I think employment is a really integral piece of this whole thing.”

But the most pressing need is housing. When it came to shelter, the majority of respondents said they don’t stay in a shelter because it was either too full or they felt uncomfortable there. And, when asked what their most pressing need was, two-thirds of respondents said housing, followed by 51 percent who said job training or employment search services.

* * *

A little over a week later, the August heat has broken, only to be replaced with days of rain. Lala got caught in a downpour but was able to change into dry clothes at the Salvation Army facility. Her fiancée hurt her knee, and after a night at the hospital, they got into an argument with a METRO police officer who Lala said tried to keep them from sleeping on the train.

That Jack in the Box job never materialized. What Lala thought was an offer was just the first step in the application process, and she never got a call back. And she found out getting housing might take several months longer than she thought.

During times like this, sometimes she can’t help but think, “Oh my gosh, somebody run me over.” The stress is constant. “It got me thinking like that,” she says, “but I know God damn well I ain’t fixing to get run over.”

Even after finding out it’ll take longer than she thought to get her own apartment, she’s hopeful she can stay with a friend who is about to get rent assistance. “We’re gonna be good by next week,” she says confidently. And before long, she’ll be in her own place, maybe in one of the gated, white neighborhoods where she dreams of living.

* * *

One of the conundrums facing the homeless is that funding for housing programs is often prioritized by level of need. On one hand, it may make sense: When resources are scarce, you give it to those who are most desperately in need. But on the other hand, it may be a more efficient use of those scarce resources to use them on those who only need a little help getting back on their feet. It’s a balancing act, Narendorf said.

“There are some young people that you can give them a housing voucher and pair them with a mentor, provide some basic case management and they very well might be successful,” she said. “But there’s another two-thirds that needs more intensive support.”

By the standards of homeless services, Lala doesn’t rank high when it comes to need.

* * *

By November, Sarango and his team, led by Bilal Jaffri, a star case manager who was once homeless himself, have been able to place 30 young adults, including one 24-year-old mother of four kids, in housing through the rapid rehousing program.

But another 305 youths are still on the wait list. Because Jaffri is one of only two cases workers assessing young adults to get them into the system, says Sarango, there’s a limit to how many people can be taken on. Starting in 2017, other service providers, including the Covenant House and Montrose Center will add additional caseworkers to their ranks, according to Sarango, helping to increase capacity.

Until then, Jaffri said, “I try to be open and honest about it. You should definitely not just be waiting, even though you’re on the waitlist.”

By November, Lala said she was done waiting. Word around the drop-in center where she used to be a frequent face is that she left with her fiancée to go to North Carolina or maybe Atlanta. But they broke up, people around the center say, though no one at YARC is sure where either is. When Sarango discovers that Lala, like too many youth, has fallen through the cracks, he only has a minute to reflect before there’s a knock at his door.

It’s one of the workers from the front desk of the shelter. He says a young boy was outside saying he had left his home and couldn’t go back, something about his father threatening to kill him. “How young?” asks Sarango? Thirteen, the worker tells him.

Thanksgiving decorations are still up. Paper turkeys and hand-written notes about what everyone is thankful for hang on the wall. Family. Pets. Food. Sarango shakes his head. He used to be a science teacher, and in the red polo he wears every day, he often looks young and ebullient. But in moments like these, the sadness shows.

He recently found his facility only has a few weeks to move out of the small brick building they rent on Caroline Street. Rent is too high anywhere nearby. For now, the plan is to move into the type of modular units that crowded schools use as portable classrooms. He laughs at the irony. “Pretty soon,” he says, “we’ll be homeless too.”

Officials at the facility recently learned they'll have to move to a new location. (Photo credit: Leah Binkovitz/Kinder Institute)
Officials at the facility recently learned they’ll have to move to a new location. (Photo credit: Leah Binkovitz/Kinder Institute)

Disclosure: The subject of this story requested that her last name not be used for privacy reasons.

Read previous coverage in the Kinder Institute’s “Housing of Houston” series:

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