More reporting reveals more homeless youth

Blayne Whitt is one of 19 previously homeless students who graduated from high school this year with help from Homeless Youth Connection. [Submitted photo]

Homeless Youth Connection needs host families

By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia

When Rebeca Castro took Blayne Whitt in at the age of 16, he was living from couch to couch and periodically homeless.

He was a friend of her son, Kairo, and her heart went out to Blayne.

Being a host parent comes with its own set of unique parameters, but Ms. Castro said when Homeless Youth Connection got involved they lightened the load.

Homeless Youth Connection, which serves 60 schools, is projecting to serve close to 50 percent more students throughout the Valley this year compared with last year. Last year, HYC served 400 students, 88 students from the Peoria Unified School District, which is the largest district they serve.

Community Engagement Manager Aimee Yamamori said Homeless Youth Connection is in dire need of host families like Ms. Castro to provide safe housing for homeless youth.

She expects increases across the board based on state and county averages. Already the number of homeless youth ages 12-19 has increased from about 5,000 to 7,000 two years ago, she said.

Statistically, Peoria represents 22 percent of HYC’s total number of students, from 12 school districts in the program. Based on history, a safe projection would be a 10 percent in PUSD, she said.

Additionally, Ms. Yamamori said the holiday season sees a second jump in students, creating a greater need — between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28 last year, HYC had 46 new clients in PUSD, seven of which were placed in host families.

Right now the organization has 12 host families across the Valley with about six pending.

HYC consistently had unaccompanied students or youth on their own with no place else to go within PUSD’s boundaries last year and those numbers will continue this year, Ms. Yamamori said.

“So a fair guess would be that more students will be identified,” she said. “With school starting we are already seeing a fast pace with students entering the program that need our services. We continue to need recruitment of new host families for students that do not have safe housing options in the area.”

Stefan Swiat, a spokesman for Arizona Department of Education, said numbers of identified students experiencing homelessness has increased in Arizona that can be attributed to the improved ability of organizations to collect this data. Schools are providing more services to more students experiencing homelessness.

As far as data and numbers are concerned, he said, Local Education Agencies reported 26,673 homeless students, an increase from 23,736 in 2015-16. The Arizona Department of Education uses the definition provided by the McKinney-Vento Act. It defines homeless children as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” The act provides examples of children who would fall under this definition: children and youth sharing housing due to loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason.

“Depending on what organization is collecting the data, there are different numbers floating around,” he said.

Important services

Homeless Youth Connection provided important services for Ms. Castro, including transpiration, most notably for Blayne to get to and from school, about 20 miles from Ms. Castro’s home in south Phoenix.

She said the biggest thing has been the underlying support from Homeless Youth Connection helping Blayne get the best support he deserves as he moved into adulthood. She said the experience has not been without bumps, but has been worth it.

“They are really fantastic. When he needed to go to a doctor’s appointment, they would be there. They also provided a mentor for him,” she said. “It can be really confusing not only for the kid but also for the family, and how do we all fit together in this, and how do we navigate these unsure waters? (Homeless Youth Connection) helped us navigate those waters. It is ok it is chaotic. They said don’t worry, we’ll get there.”

In 2009, Homeless Youth Connection was created to draw attention to and serve the needs of youth experiencing homelessness, and since 2010, the nonprofit has served more than 900 youths ages 13 through 19, many in the West Valley.

During the 2016-2017 school year, HYC provided about 400 homeless youth with basic needs, case management, housing and other resources so they could stay in school. More than 25 percent of those graduated.

Last school year, 44 unaccompanied homeless youth in PUSD had a place to call home. Of the 44 students living with host families, 22 were seniors and 19 graduated, like Mr. Whitt, and the other three are going back to school.

Case managers help youth identify what they want to do after graduation and then help the students create a plan to accomplish that goal. Planning for the future is supported by host families and mentors, and helps youth avoid homelessness in the future.

Host families

Host families play a huge role.

Ms. Yamamori said homeless youth is the most difficult subpopulation of homelessness to quantify. Many kids do what they have to do in order to survive, such as sleeping in cars, bartering sex for shelter, couch surfing from one friend’s house to another, or living with abusive family members who threaten to kick them out.

Ms. Yamamori said without real support, such youth may find themselves in and out of jail, dependent on the welfare system, or living their life in a chronic state of crisis, and not focusing on staying in school and getting a diploma.

“If we can take away the worry of where a student will sleep at night, if they will get a meal and if they are safe — they can stay focused on being successful in school,” she said.

To address housing needs, Homeless Youth Connection implemented a Host Family program, which is similar to a foreign exchange student program. The homeless youth is matched with a host family who provides a stable living environment while the youth completes high school. Placing youth in a home setting allows them to build stronger relationships and interpersonal skills, experience stability in their home life, learn positive life skills that will help them transition to independence, and help motivate them to attain this quality of life in adulthood.

Host homes are a low-cost, community-engaging strategy to address the immediate need without incurring the high costs of operating an emergency shelter or transitional housing program, which can cost $25,000 a year per youth.

The host family provides shelter, food and sometimes transportation for youth, while the organization delivers case management services.

Homeless Youth Connection provides a monthly stipend of $200 for each host family. In kind donations can include gift cards, hygiene, clothing and other items.

The Host Family model has a very high success rate and is the most effective method in addressing housing for homeless youth, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Once a host home has been recruited, background checked, and trained, the ongoing challenge is to retain their services. Because ongoing support and communication is essential, a HYC case manager will meet with the host family and the youth on a monthly basis. In addition to making sure that basic needs continue to be met, such as food and clothing, the discussion will also include school attendance, participation, and if tutoring is needed. The meeting will also allow for discussion about how everyone is getting along and if there are any challenges. Open, honest communication is an important factor in the success of the relationship, and the case manager can help facilitate and encourage this dialogue during the visit.

In addition to the initial training, host families will be invited to attend quarterly meetings to discuss how the program is working. These meetings will allow the host families to share the successes and challenges of their individual situations, as well as provide an opportunity to learn from each other how to best support the youth they are assisting.

Members of the support networks and HYC’s housing committee will be invited and encouraged to attend so they can learn how to best support the host families.

The future

Mr. Whitt graduated from Centennial High School earlier this year. Ms. Castro said it would not have been possible if not for the support from Homeless Youth Connection.

She said his case worker, Tarinda Craglow, was instrumental in Mr. Whitt’s development.

“Tarinda was amazing. She came to his graduation. I don’t know, maybe this is little, but it was the cutest thing – she brought him a candy lei for his graduation,” she said. “We all took pictures and it was really awesome and they really care about him and gave him a safe place, a real support system,” she said.

Mr. Whitt has since enrolled in Glendale Community College pursuing a job as an emergency medical technician. He has received his basic life support card, and by December he is expecting to take the test for EMT certification.

“From when Blayne came to us to now is astounding. He has grown so much,” Ms. Castro said. “And its been good for both Kai and Blayne. For Blayne seeing the hum drum of life and it has been good for Kai appreciating what he has.”

Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697 or .Continue the discussion at

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