"People don't realize how close they are to becoming homeless," Sid Underwood (right), 19, said. Both Underwood and Leonard Costa (left), 19, have both been homeless for six years. Underwood said she has become accustomed to street life.

On the streets: teen homelessness

By Kyle Kim (The Whitworthian, 11/17/2009)

It’s 2 a.m., and while most teenagers are in their beds fast asleep, Kristine Woodis sitting in a back booth of Shari’s restaurant trying to escape the cold.

Wood orders her usual plate of french fries and coffee. Lots of cream and lots of sugar. She writes poetry to kill the time, until an employee eventually kicks herout after several hours.

At one point in time Wood was part of Spokane’s homeless youth.

At the age of 16, her mother kicked Wood out of the house after she came out as lesbian.

Afterward Wood started couch surfing, rotating through five of her friends’ homes from Rogers High School where she attended. But after awhile, the parents of Wood’s friends asked her to stop staying at their homes.

For the first time, Wood was homeless and it wasn’t until two years later that she would be able to get off the streets.”It was survival of the fittest,” Wood said.

Numbers on teen homelessness in Spokane vary. Determining a perfectly accurate number of homeless youth can be difficult, especially since homelessness can be temporary, and many experience it on and off over time.

In the city of Spokane, approximately 1,500 teenagers have been reported as runaways and missing peoples, according to a 2009 report from the Spokane Police Department. However, not all teen runaways are considered homeless.

The Spokane City Human Services identified 368 homeless teens in a one-day count of all homeless people in the City of Spokane and the county in early 2009.

Organizations that provide services for homeless teens such as Volunteers of America’s Crosswalk, claim to serve an average of 1,000 youths in a year in Spokane while Cup of Cool Water served 497 street teens in 2008.

A 10-year plan has been implemented in a joint initiative of the city of Spokaneand Spokane County in an attempt to end homelessness in the region by theyear 2015.

Nationally, an estimated 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year, according to a study done in 2007 by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

Many homeless teens live on the streets for various reasons. Family, housing and economic problems are prominent causes for most youth homelessness.

For Wood, the option of staying or leaving home was not a choice.

Wood eventually resorted to squatting in places such as the announcer’s boxesat both Gonzaga Prep and Rogers High School baseball stadiums, and various places downtown.

Within a year of being on the streets, she met a group of other homeless youthswho became what she called her street family.

Sid Underwood and Leonard Costa, both 19 years old, have been homeless since they were 13. They met each other on the streets of Spokane.

They both said homeless teens have close relationships with one another. Being homeless has become easier than trying to live a normal life, Underwood said.

Courtney Deymonaz, 22, experienced homelessness for several months when she was 17. Though Deymonaz slept on the streets only on two occasions when homeless, she hasn’t had a stable housing situation most of her life.

There are enough resources in Spokane for homeless teens to get out of their situation, but there is a general distrust towards institutions and “the system,” Deymonaz said.

Spokane has about 14 meal-providing services on a typical weekday and drops to around half during weekends, along with counseling and housing services, according to the Feed Spokane Coalition.

By the end of Wood’s two years of being homeless, she was on the brink of dropping out of school, and getting involved with drugs, crime and prostitution–a common route for many homeless youth.

It wouldn’t be until Barb Silvey, intervention counselor for Rogers High School, decided to take Wood into her home that things started to turn around.

Not only does Silvey work with homeless students, she has adopted many ofthem. In the span of 10 years, Silvey has had 19 foster kids. Wood fell right in the middle of that number.”I didn’t go find [homeless] kids, they just kind of came to me,” Silvey said.

Silvey has worked for 29 years as both an official and unofficial advocate for atriskteens at Rogers, a school where more than 100 students attending are considered homeless by Spokane Public School’s Homeless Education and Resource Team Program.

The HEART program considers any unaccompanied youth also as homeless teens. Unaccompanied youth are considered teens who are not in physical custody of aparent or legal guardian.Wood, who is now 30 years old, lives in Portland and is in the process of finishing her bachelor’s degree at Portland State University.

Wood has been a tireless advocate for helping homeless youth and received thePresidential Volunteer Service Award in 2008 as a result of her work and volunteerism with New Avenues for Youth, an organization for homeless teens in Portland.

“I think I’m an exception,” Wood said. “Often I think of where I would be right nowif Barb didn’t come into my life.”

Wood experienced the difference in how she was treated when she became homeless. She was a high school athlete and involved in theatre engaged and active like many other students.

“It’s interesting to me how quickly people can treat you differently,” Wood said.”Most people have misunderstandings of why people are homeless.”

For some homeless teens, the reality of living on the streets is a mix of both prideand modesty.”Street kids may not be book smart but we’re not dumb,” Underwood said. “Weknow how to survive without money.”

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