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Ending the Spectre of Youth Homelessness

Hartford News

February 19, 2009

Homelessness among young people does not always mean that students live out of cars, or on the streets. It means that they have no stable place to make a life.

The horror stories of students struggling to pay tuition and work and rent show me what resilience is and give meaning to the old adage of picking yourself up by the bootstraps.

One young woman with no parents to go to sleeps on her uncleís couch, fending off her cousins who steal her food. She canít go stay with her grandmother, because the grandmother may lose Section 8 funds. Where else is this girl to go?

I could list off dozens of other stories from students and young people trapped in an economic downturn with an inability to establish independent lives. This leads them to turn to the streets, which offer no possibility of success, and every chance at jail.

Secure, regular shelter is an essential to personal growth, and if we want young people to participate in the community, they need to have an infrastructure they can count on. That means when they come home at night, they expect the food they bought to be there.

Housing for young people ages 18 to 35 in Hartford represents a crisis in this city. The grind of poverty and the war on drugs and so many other factors that have led to broken homes means that these youth rely on extended family connections which arenít the most productive.

My struggles of moving home after college, trying to live by my parentsí rules again pale in comparison to some of what these homeless youth go through. It drove me nuts. And my degree and car provided cash and freedom of movement, but they did little to eliminate the frustration of being young and home.

For couch surfing young people who have never been able to find an apartment on their own, by the time they hit 22 and are still sharing a room with their nieces, I can imagine that it makes them angry, cornered and hopeless.

Other cities Ė albeit those with much larger populations and resource bases Ė recognize the issue of youth housing and have taken steps towards fixing it.

In New York City, Covenant House, despite the leadership issues it has dealt with in the past, is an established provider of mid-term (meaning several months) free housing for young people trying to get on their feet. Covenant House makes kids sign something like contracts to keep them there, and encourage them to build on the shelter experience.

In Toronto, Evaís Initiatives is a not-for-profit creating opportunities for homeless youth. They have set up multiple shelters that not only provide housing, but life skills and career oriented employment opportunities, like cooking classes, provisioning expeditions, and financial planning seminars.

In Hartford, we need to figure out how to create similar post-high school experiences for young people who need to create an independent existence.

Free tuition at Capital might help, but considering the current budget woes of the state, I donít see it. Gov. M. Jodi Rellís proposal to merge technical high schools and community colleges creates some financial savings for the state.

Yet this proposal relies on a vision that works in limited circumstances, and it fails to address the core issues of access to higher education and housing for these students.

It pains me to say this, but John Rowlandís ideas of moving community colleges and UConn branches to downtowns like in Stamford, Hartford and Waterbury had more chutzpah and drive.

This doesnít change the fact that Rowland took bribes to spend $57 million building the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, a maximum security prison for young black and Latino men in Middletown. With that money, we could have built a preventive housing program to keep kids from jail.

Hartford City Council recently approved plans to demolish the hotel on Constitution Plaza and replace it. In this economy, I donít see it happening. Another reason to stave off demolition (aside from preserving the architecture) is that the greenest building is the one you donít have to build.

I am not sure that the housing planned to replace the hotel with will benefit the young people of this city. It should be, and it seems like a proper next step for Common Ground, after it completes the construction of the Hollander Foundation Center on Asylum.

Although the proposed rents of $700 a month at the Hollander Foundation Center would seem a little high for college students, creative partnerships with the city, the state and private organizations like the Melville Charitable Trust could subsidize the rents even further.

If the edifice on Constitution Plaza fails, imagine on Market Street, plopped in the parking lot right behind Brown Thompson, gliding down the Temple Street, a new housing complex for students at Capital Community College.

Consider a model like Lawrinson Hall, an 18-story dormitory at my alma mater, Syracuse University, that houses 552 young men and women. Why not a co-operative skyscraper for students and young families trying to make a go of it?

See the bottom three floors as mixed use Ė office, medical, retail, food. Make it an intentional community, where those seeking stable housing help set the rules, run the edifice, and maintain the premises. Create contracts like at Covenant House, programs like those at Evaís Initiative and mentorships with older, more successful, stable students.

Students can stay there three, maybe four years. Create a partnership with Youth Build or JobCorps to begin rehabilitating housing stock in the city which would provide these young people with homes to graduate to.

For those who say Hartford can't afford any more social services, the problem is already here, and not going away. The Mayor's current plan to end homelessness, if the e-mails to Willie Nunez are any example, lacks vision, leadership and experience to do so. Nor do I believe that it addresses this issue directly.

These young people struggling to find housing aren't going anywhere, mainly because they can't afford to move where. The only time they do leave the city is to do time. We need to do better.

This project would take five to eight years to complete, and every day that we donít do it another day that young people get lost on the streets. We can either build prisons for kids to live in, or we can build safe, stable housing that accomplishes everything that prisons canít, donít and never will.

Reprinted with permission of the The Hartford News.
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