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Op-Ed: Who Is Taking Care of Our Homeless Youth?

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By Barbara Carroll

I was the product of an abusive, neglectful, and chaotic household. When I was a child in the ’70s we had never heard of Child Protective Services. It was not a thing at all. I was never removed from my home. I should have been in the foster-care system. However, given the current state of the Texas foster-care system, I would have been just as well-off staying with an abusive father in a chaotic and frightening environment than in the custody of the state. Texas DFPS fails to protect the children it takes into custody and fails to prepare them adequately for adulthood, making Texas DFPS the ultimate abusive, neglectful parent.

At the age of 16 I found myself without a place to live. My family, what was left of it, was evicted from our rent-by-the-week efficiency apartment in Montrose in the fall of 1983, right after Hurricane Alicia. A resident of our apartment complex, a street-kid who went by “Bird” and was living with an older woman at the time, told my brother and me that there was a youth shelter close by. He called it “Under 21” and told us how to get there. My brother and I went to the shelter and got ourselves registered and admitted. Our mother lived in her car for a while, and ultimately went into one of the adult shelters.

“Under 21” were the words at the bottom of the old sign in front of the Covenant House on Lovett. Nowadays the youth call it “the Cov.” The Cov put me up for a few months until my Mom got back on her feet, and then a few months more when she went into alcohol rehabilitation and prepared to make real changes in her life. She has been sober now for 32 years, and I was blessed to be able to move back in with her finally, and stay with her until I was 24 and able to support myself. A lot of kids are not so blessed.

Barbara Carroll
Barbara Carroll (l)

In 2009 I was part of a group that opened a once-a-week drop-in center for homeless youth called Montrose Grace Place. I volunteered with MGP for the next five years in one capacity or another until I left Houston for a scholarship opportunity in another state. The kids I met there were so much like I had been, so much like my friends were back in the day. The only difference between them and myself at age 16 was that they didn’t have any options. Their families did not manage to make the changes they needed to make to give these kids a safety net during the transition to adulthood—that very tricky period between the ages of roughly 18–25. An alarming number of them were former foster-care youth.

Could you have supported yourself at age 18? Did you have the job skills, the budgeting ability, the impulse control, wisdom, and focus to do that? Or did you live with your parents until your 20s? If you lived on your own at 18, was someone there to bail you out when you ran short of rent money, needed your laundry done, or didn’t have any food in the house? Did someone co-sign on your first lease in a clean, well-maintained, and safe apartment complex?

I know some really smart, resourceful, and upstanding 18-year-olds, but I don’t believe any of them are up to that task. They just haven’t gotten to that level yet. Everybody needs some help at that age. Nobody should be on their own before they’re ready to be. In my years at Grace Place, I met kids who were on the street because their parents had mental illness, were abusive, were incarcerated, had died, were addicted to drugs, or had been deported. I met one girl whose foster parents had to throw her out because she was over age 18, and they could not take in younger foster kids as long as she was still in the home. Their mortgage payment depended on the income from foster parenting.

Street kids are not guilty. They’ve had a bad start and are trying to survive. Let me tell you what some of my friends, the street kids in 1983, did to survive. They panhandled. They shoplifted. They took drugs. They sold drugs. They traded sex for money and shelter. They robbed and mugged. They banded together and helped each other out, pooling their money for dirty, horrific hotel rooms. They lived in abandoned buildings. They lived in the homes of predators.

Things haven’t changed in 30 years. The kids still sell drugs, turn tricks, rob, and steal. They live with adults who demand sex in order for them to stay. They band together and form families, and provide to each other the only protection, nurturing, safety, and support they can manage.

Here is one last thing. I never spent a night on the street. I never had to make the hard decision about whether to keep my virginity or have a place to sleep for the night. The Covenant House was there for me when I was 16 and allowed me to stay until I had a safe, secure place to go. The Cov currently houses youth between the ages of 18 and 20. They provide great services and programs that can truly help a kid get through that transitional period. But what happens to the kids under age 18? To my knowledge, there is no shelter in Houston, other than foster-care providers for kids under age 18. A kid who has been abused at home and in foster care is going to choose the streets over home. Where are the under-18 homeless kids? Who is taking care of them?

Barbara Carroll recently received a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Michigan, on full tuition scholarship. She currently lives in Detroit, Michigan and works with youth in foster care.

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