Washtenaw County grapples with barriers to ending youth homelessness

On a hot afternoon in late September, young people who have been helped by Ann Arbor nonprofit Ozone House dramatized the realities of being young and homeless, from wondering where to find toilet paper while living on the streets to the heartbreak of being bullied at school.


In a program called "Voices from Ozone" (written and directed by Eastern Michigan University student Jenny Roger with input from Ozone youth), half a dozen young performers in their teens and 20s called on legislators, judges, and other decision-makers to learn more and do a better job of helping homeless youth.


While some challenges are the same regardless of a homeless person's age, children and teens face special challenges that range from trying to keep up with schoolwork despite a chaotic home environment to having their behavior mistaken for juvenile delinquency.


Many advocates and policymakers are hard at work trying to solve the issue of youth homelessness, but barriers to success range from how to do an accurate head count to lack of affordable housing.


A homeless population that could fill the city of Troy


About 1 percent of Michigan's residents are classified as homeless. During the "Voices From Ozone" program, performers noted that the total number is roughly equivalent to the population of Troy, Mich. And 40 percent of that homeless population is children under 18.


In Washtenaw County, just over 4,000 residents are homeless, and about 1,000 of those are children under 18. LGBT youth are also "grossly over-represented" in the number of homeless youth served, according to Katie Doyle, executive director of Ozone House, an Ann Arbor nonprofit that helps homeless and at-risk youth.


Doyle says those numbers don't tell the whole story, though.


"The definition of 'homeless' is, in some regards, a moving target," Doyle says. "There are different federal departments that define homelessness differently, and that drives how the homeless are counted."


Doyle notes that federal and state definitions often require someone to literally be living in a cardboard box or a tent on the street to be considered homeless.


"We use the most broad definition at Ozone House so we can support as many young people as possible," Doyle says. "Our definition means they don't have a fixed, adequate living situation at nighttime."


Mercedes Brown, human services manager in Washtenaw County's Office of Community and Economic Development, agrees that ambiguity around who counts as a "homeless youth" makes it difficult to address the problem.


She says federal and state agencies categorize these at-risk young people differently or use different definitions. For instance, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) might lump a 19-year-old mother with a 2-year-old child into the category of "homeless family," while Ozone House would identify that same 19-year-old mother as a "homeless youth."


Doyle notes that a lot of at-risk young people are "couch surfing" and have no fixed place to stay. The best-case scenario is that a friend's family will let them crash for a few days. The worst-case scenario means a predator may offer to house them in return for the young person performing a sex act or doing something illegal.


Using Ozone House's broader definition, local schools identify about 1,250 youth each year, typically between ages 5 and 18, who need the nonprofit's services. A couple hundred more between ages 18 and 21 also end up using Ozone House's services each year, Doyle says.


Being singled out as 'the homeless kid'


Brittney Barros, 19, became homeless in the summer between eighth and ninth grade when her brother drove his car into the house his family was renting, resulting in them being evicted. Over the course of seven months, her family lived in a tent, in various homeless shelters and motels, and for a while in a car, moving about 90 times in those 7 months. Barros was attending Lincoln Consolidated Schools at the time.


"I remember my my freshman year, my first day of high school, which is supposed to be this great thing," Barros says. "But I had to sleep in a car and go to school in clothes I'd been wearing for a week."


Churches, community groups, and her school's social worker were kind, donating clothing and other items. However, Barros was trying to live a normal life that included playing on her school's basketball team, and she remembers she had nowhere to put a trash bag of donated items while she was at practice. She tried to hide it under the bleachers, but other nosy students found it, leading to her being known as "the trash girl" or "that homeless girl" by fellow students.


Ramone Williams, 28, found himself homeless while trying to attend college and also struggled with the stigma that comes along with that label.


Growing up in Flint, he'd been encouraged to pursue higher education by his grandmother and earned an associate degree from a community college. When he decided to attend Eastern Michigan University to pursue a bachelor's degree, though, he had to make some tough choices.


"I didn't have a ton of money because I couldn't work full-time, and I was also dealing with depression," he says. He knew he couldn't afford a vehicle, a home, and tuition, so he had to choose two of the three.


"I chose school and a vehicle," he says. For eight months, his vehicle doubled as his home and his way to get around. He tried to use the school as shelter at times as well, but summers and school breaks made that a challenge.


During that entire time, almost no fellow student or professor knew he was living in a car. He never used his plight to get any extended deadlines or leniency from professors, saying he "didn't want any excuses to be made for me."


"I literally didn't tell anybody," he says. "I thought I'd get in trouble and people would judge me."


Barriers and challenges to addressing homelessness


Social stigma isn't the only challenge for young people who experience homelessness, though. A 17- or 18-year-old homeless teen trying to get a job and move out of a shelter might have a tough time getting official identification due to a bureaucracy that even many adults have a tough time navigating.


Ozone House staff help the youth they serve get a Washtenaw County ID Card, a photo ID available to Washtenaw County residents age 14 and older. It is intended to provide a means of proving residency in the county for the purpose of accessing county programs.


"Lack of ID sounds like a mundane thing, but it's one of the biggest barriers we see young people facing," Doyle says. "Something like 90 percent or more of the young people who come to us have no identification. You need ID to do anything, but you need ID to get ID. It's a catch-22 situation."


A young person might have aged out of the foster care system, losing touch with his or her birth family. He or she might not know what hospital or even what city he or she was born in, which makes it a challenge to figure out how to find birth certificates and other vital records.


Another huge challenge for addressing homelessness for people of all ages is the lack of affordable housing in Ann Arbor. Programs exist to provide housing subsidies or vouchers, but eventually, the individual or family being helped will have to take on the full burden of rent, typically six to 12 months after being helped with a voucher or subsidy, Brown says.


Social workers and advocates have a hard time convincing landlords to take a chance on a family who has experienced homelessness and who can only afford to pay for a unit month-to-month with a subsidy when a slew of university students can afford to pay for a full year upfront in cash, Brown says.


Looking for solutions to some of these challenges, Washtenaw County recently participated in a national initiative to "functionally end chronic and veteran homelessness," Brown says. This hasn't directly benefited homeless youth, but the lessons learned and the infrastructure created during that initiative has indirectly helped families and children.


The county is now working on an an initiative that aims to end homelessness for families and youth by 2020. County personnel submitted an application for a HUD grant to address family and youth homelessness but were unsuccessful in the first round. Brown says county personnel have been working with an advisor who is helping them revise their application so they might be successful with a second round of grant funding.


Barros says that even when resources are available, many youth don't know they exist or how to access them, and she thinks that needs to change.


"I feel the community should continue to teach younger folks how to recognize signs of homelessness and how to help a friend in need," Barros says. "There should be training for every youth in Washtenaw County on how to spot a homeless kid and point them toward resources."

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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