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Walk a Mile in My Shoes: Homeless Youth in Northern Kentucky Share Their Stories

"Homelessness is the confirmation of all fears," said a young man at the special dinner held at the Childrens Home in Devou Park in Covington on Wednesday night. The dinner was in honor of Youth Homelessness Matters Day, April 15, and was organized by the Children's Law Center in conjunction with the Children's Home of Northern Kentucky, Job Corps of Cincinnati, the Brighton Center, which runs the only youth shelter in Northern Kentucky, and Lighthouse Youth Services.

All brought some young people to the dinner to share the stories of their lives.

"I decided to get out of the hatred and negativity that I was in, and I am going into the medical field," the same young man said. "For me, homelessness was not a graveyard, but a battlefield, and I have declared victory."

A young lady talked about being bounced around from one foster home to another from the time she was 2 until she was 18. Her mother died when she was six, and she ultimately ended up in Lighthouse Sheakley Center for Youth. There she became a three-year clean addict, and developed a love of life which allows her to be grateful for her baby daughter and for starting a career.

The statistics are staggering. Kentucky ranked as the worst state for child homelessness, according to the National Center for Family Homelessness. More than 1,725 children enrolled in Northern Kentucky schools were considered homeless during the 2011­-2012 school year.

"We work with youth in Boone, Campbell, and Kenton Counties, and we felt like having a dinner for the kids and inviting local community leaders would help people realize that there are kids who are homeless out there and let them know that there are resources that can help," said Tiffanny Smith, attorney at the Children's Law Center. "A lot of people don't realize that the average age for a homeless child in the area is nine."

She refers to the McKinney Vento definition of homelessness as "any child who does not have a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence" and this includes children who are not living with a parent or legal guardian, those who stay in motels or shelters, and those who are coming out of foster care or the juvenile justice system.

Smith looked around for someone to partner with her in this venture to raise awareness for youth homelessness and Rick Wurth, Chief Executive Officer for the Children's Home of Northern Kentucky, got on board.

"We have done a $5.2 million renovation on this building, thanks to generous donors, that was originally built in 1926 in this location, and was built as an orphanage," said Wurth. "We want to reach out to our neighbors in the community and let them know we have this new facility which we want to be a true treasure to the community. I think the problem we have here is that no one knows about our campuses and no one wants to think about the problems of child abuse and child homelessness. I intend to change that."

Children's Home of Northern Kentucky has three campuses, one in Burlington that can house 26 children ages 7 to 17, and facilities in Devou park for 22 state foster youth, and 14 beds for adolescents needing addiction treatment. The third campus is at 5th and Philadelphia and is used for events and offices.

Job Corps was well represented at the dinner, and Admissions Counselor Anteia Greer admitted that she recruits her students from the Sheakley Center. (The number for anyone interested in Job Corps, is 513­-412-­7278.)

"We give the young person room and board, three meals a day and education," Greer explained. "They can stay with Job Corps up to two years and we help them get a high school diploma or a GED, and then we have 7 trades that we offer to help them get into. We are funded by the Department of Labor, and to do all this for one person for one year would come to $40,000. Each person gets a stipend every two weeks and we give them classes in everything they need to succeed. This is a one shot deal, though. The only other place these kids can get everything they get here is prison, and we stress that to them because it is their choice. We want them to succeed and then want to give back for the opportunity they have."

Twenty-­eight young people as young as 13-years old attended the dinner, which Smith says will probably be an annual event. Smith had a few ice­breaker games that allowed the kids to get to know each other, and the food was provided by the UMC Food Ministry, a grouping of United Methodist churches who feed all the kids and staff at Children's Home of Northern Kentucky as well as Boys and Girls clubs and YMCA's in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area.

One by one, several of the young people bravely stood and shared their stories which would have sidelined the less resilient. One young man said he bears the scar from a foster home which practiced Satanism, and he related how he has been in prison many times, but now has a job and a GED.

"I'm doing things better now," he concluded, saying that he acted on a decision to be better.

A young lady told how she had to deal with being abandoned by her parents and raised by grandparents, but was abused as a youngster. She ran away many times before making a decision to climb out of the despair. She now has graduated from high school and has a plan for the future.

"I try to make the best out of every day," she stated though tears.

A 14-year old boy told of being in six foster homes, separated from his siblings but now is dealing with his rejection and knows he is with people who are trying to help him.

At the end, Smith thanked them all for sharing their stories of courage, and then cried.

For more information about the Children's Home of Northern Kentucky, the number is 859-­292-­4177, and the number for Children's Law Center is 859-­431­-3313.

Written by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor