She will talk about her research for "Almost Home," the recently published book she wrote with Kevin Ryan, the president of Covenant House. The book tells the true stories of six young people who overcame homelessness with the help of people who believed in them, and it concludes with a chapter on what readers can do to help prevent young people from becoming homeless.
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Phil Murphy Says 1h. Read more local news from Teaneck. REHM Do you think that the public really wants to hear about, and know about homeless kids? RYAN I think that most people want to know how they can help homeless young people. I don't think people want six stories of despair that leave us all feeling bad about ourselves and feeling terrible about the plight of homeless young people.
But I do think that people want to know what can I do. Whenever I get together with an audience, whether it was here last night in D. What can I do to help? RYAN And this book was a very intentional effort by Tina Kelly, my co-author, and I to give people a robust menu of items and activities that they can engage in to help. Stay with us. REHM And welcome back. Paulie, good morning to you. REHM I'm so glad to have you with us.
Talk about why you left home. I think that it was, do I want to live or do I want to be, you know, mentally and physically destroyed for, you know, the next few years. And, you know, I tried to leave before because things got bad, but I didn't really actually have the mental capacity until I was 13, almost 14 years old to finally stay gone. REHM And tell us what conditions were like in your home before you left. REHM Tell us what conditions were like in your home before you left. Well, let's see, I'll give you an example. I don't know if it's in the book.
But when I was maybe four years old, one of the earliest memories that I have is of my dad, the adoption dad, when the foster parents that I was in got mad one day and I don't remember what for, I don't what was going on, but he started screaming, started beating at my mom. And then everything broke out, I was scared.
I didn't know what was going on. SMITH And he went into his -- he was a big gun collector, so he went into his room and grabbed a gun. It was a big, huge, silver gun, and he gave it to me and I thought he was going to, you know, maybe shoot me first. But he gave it to me and then kneeled down in front of and I was in front of the closet. And I remember the carpet, I remember the cold air around me. I remember the weight of the gun, and then he put the gun in his mouth and said, you make the choice. If you think that I'm evil and you think that I should die, you need to make the choice.
And so that's one of the first experiences that I've had. And from then, it was just continuous, you know, anger and mental abuse and emotional abuse and just, you know, going to school with bruises. And, you know, my teacher asking me what's wrong and then, you know, me telling them that everything's fine. You know, it's marks from playing or marks from sports. REHM I gather you were finally arrested for shoplifting and tried staying with a friend, but then the friend's mother called the police and you were taken to Covenant House in Anchorage.
But before you got there, tell us, if you can, about the worst days you had on the streets. I went straight to my friend's house and then they took me to Covenant House. And then I started to, you know, lash out a little bit. And I didn't really want to listen, I didn't really want to, you know, follow the rules.
And Covenant House didn't really understand.
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Although, you know, as nice as they were, I just wasn't ready. And some of the worst streets that I've -- some of the worst nights that I've had was, you know, I had to rob certain people for money. That was some bad nights.
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I feel really bad about that. Sleeping on the streets was pretty bad. Eating out of trashcans, like I would go to school, you know, I would try to stay in school. And I would go to school and when I would get off, I would, like, try to find food somewhere. SMITH And I would eat out of a trashcan and, like, somebody from school would see me and that was a little bit hard to deal with. And then being made fun of for the clothes that I was wearing, being bullied around and things like that, for being poor or for being unattractive or things, that was really hard.
REHM And without the shelter, where do you think you'd be now? Not where I am today, that's for sure. I feel like I'm a grown up. I feel like I'm mature. I feel like -- I mean, granted, I still always feel like I'm, you know, just one false move away from living on the streets again, and I'll always feel like that. But, you know, Covenant House has really helped me accept the fact that, you know, I'm an adult and I need to take responsibility for myself and, you know, no one's going to do it but me.
REHM And you think, for the most part, you owe what you have accomplished I feel like I owe everybody all the time. I'm always gracious and always thankful because 10 years ago I wasn't. I did not have food. I did not have clothes. So -- and, you know, I'm thankful for everything. I mean, everybody has their idea on religion and God and things like that, but I'm thankful for that as well.
REHM Well, Paulie, I'm delighted that you could join us this morning and especially thankful with you that you've made it. Take good care. I know I haven't seen him in a while and Tina Kelley for spending the time with me. It was really great. And thank you so much for having me on the show. REHM Indeed. And we hope it helps other young people. Thanks for joining us, Paulie.
He wrote the foreword for "Almost Home. Thank you for having me on and thank you for having this conversation. Tell me about homeless kids in New Jersey. And one of the things I love about the book is it started to wake people up, not just to the problem but that there is hope and that intervention can take a situation from being one of a grievous waste of national resources of country, which is not oil or gas, it's our children and go from wasting that to empowering those young people, their minds, their brilliance, their beauty to make an impact that benefits all of us.
He had a home situation that was his family could not take care of him. And if it wasn't for the intervention of people in his small town, specifically one family, but really he had, I would call it conspiracy of love around him of people that would not let him fall through the cracks, I wouldn't be here today. REHM Indeed your father, thanks to the kindness of strangers, your father went on to get a college degree.
You know, in fact it was last Thanksgiving that one of the most poignant time for my dad talked about the story because he now suffers from Parkinson's, he was upset as we're going around the table saying we are thankful for, you know, talking -- he couldn't remember the names of the people who gave him dollar bills just to help him pay his first semester tuition. You talk about return on investment, I don't know if those people knew that they were changing -- they're affecting children yet unborn. I always say the biggest thing you can do in any day is a small act of kindness, because it really do change destinies and outcomes.
And taking time to be aware of the young people around you that might need help, being aware of places like Covenant House that are helping to do such powerful interventions and empowering the destinies of kids, we all have so much more power than we actually use every day to make the difference and make an impact. When you have such a devastating storm that the aftermath of which is still felt, when you have days and days of people without power, people who burned through their savings, people who lose their basic necessities and aggravates any kind of problem or stress, it just makes it so much worst.
And that's what we're seeing across New Jersey, from the wealthiest of towns to towns that are struggling. And I have to say I'm very grateful to see how social media is working. I put a post up from LinkedIn and had some of the founders and leaders of that company join me in an effort to raise money for Covenant House because organizations like that get so much more demand, gets a wave of demand that they're often unable to meet unless they have the generosity of others that are stepping up.
He wrote the foreword to the book we're talking about.
It's titled, "Almost Home. Thank you very much for including me. And, again, this show is bringing light into the darkness and helping to illuminate what I believe is a very good pathway forward for us all. REHM Thank you so much. Mayor Cory Booker of New Jersey. Well, Kevin Ryan, you've got an awful lot of people out there who are clearly affected by the work you're doing and clearly need you to speak out for them. RYAN Well, it's a privilege. You know, that work that we do is not about the shelters, though I don't say that dismissively, especially in light of the hurricane.
It's about the movement. It's about people inside and outside of Covenant House, who want to be love in the world, who want to be hope in the world for these young people. The truth of the matter is, listening to Paulie a few minutes ago reminds me of how modest he is. RYAN He went on to become -- he went from this experience of arctic homelessness through all of his teen years to become Alaska's kickboxing champion.
And he did that not just because lots of people inside and outside of Covenant House were cheering for him, he did that because he wanted so much to realize this big dream. I think that those big dreams are what inspire all of us. First to Brown Summit, NC. Good morning, Gay, you're on the air. GAY Good morning, Diane. And I wish you had run for president. GAY I wanted to say to the speaker, I didn't hear him mention anything about gay kids, gay young people who are very often told to get out of their parents' homes.
These children, they haven't anything wrong. They have an orientation, which is a little different but their parents have kicked them out, close-hearted, close minds and they're out there on the streets with all the other problems that they have and they are homeless.
RYAN Oh, very often. There are so many young people who, when they come out, are greeted with hate and rejection. We write about one of the kids who, at the age of 17, got kicked out by her family in California and had to fend for herself because she's gay. Her grandmother and her mother who were very sporadic in her life forced her out because they were so angry at her.
In fact, when she came out to her mother, the next thing her mother did was smack her across the face. RYAN And this is not one story. There are cities where more than 40 percent of the kids who are on the street are kids who are gay or lesbian or bisexual, kids whose hearts tack in one direction and their families want them to beat in a different direction.
RYAN Well, some of those kids are treated horrendously. When I first showed up at Covenant House, I did not know that there were young people who when they came out were forced out of their homes. But that first Thanksgiving, which is 20 years ago now, 20 years ago next week, I was at the Thanksgiving lunch at the shelter and there were three boys there.
One was 16 and two were 15, and they were back then Boyz to Men was a very popular group and they were singing these pop songs. RYAN I sat down with them and I asked them what they were doing and they said they were singing the songs they wanted played at their funerals because two of them were HIV positive and one of them had full-blown AIDS because when they had come out, their families had kicked them to the streets and they had then become enmeshed in a trafficking ring where they were getting pimped out in downtown New York City.
RYAN When kids fall, they fall hard and the stakes could not be higher for gay and lesbian kids. REHM I gather it is because they become so vulnerable. They're in need of money. They're in need of ways to feed themselves, and that's when the traffickers pick up on them. RYAN Yeah. And, Diane, what's even worst is and what's most pernicious about this is that they think there's something wrong with them.
You know, they're homeless because someone close to them, the scaffolding of love around them has collapsed and someone has said, as they're hitting the streets, you're broke. You're unwanted. You don't belong in the world. So it's not just that they're hungry or they're cold or they're tired, it's also that they think they're broken. RYAN That they think they're broken. And it's our mission in the world not just to shelter and feed kids, because that's not going to, at the end of the day, help young people to embrace the great promise of their lives.
I mean, it's a difficult transition. RYAN It's so difficult. It's not linear. You know, you take a step forward, you take a step back. The teen years are tough to begin with. I think I probably drove my parents nuts. And now that I have four teenagers, I'm humbled by how challenging it is. Adolescence is a tough time. If you've just joined us, Kevin Ryan is here. He is the president of Covenant House. That's certainly not only a building, but an organization that helps young people. Shouldn't these kids be serviced and cared for by child protective services if they're under the age of 18?
Why are children left homeless and not placed in group homes or foster care if they're coming from abusive or neglectful homes? RYAN Well, there are many cities where young people who are under the age of 18 do, in fact, get brought into the child welfare system. But there are just as many cities where intake stops.
And public child welfare isn't interested in opening the door to a 15 or a 16 year old. And once those kids are in foster care, helping them get to a forever family and some stability is a huge challenge and this is one of the front where we are really losing ground. And it's one of the one's I'm very worried about. But the number of young people who are aging out of foster care without a family -- without a forever family -- is sharply increased.
Twenty-six thousand kids last year left child welfare systems across the United States with no forever family. And when they have no forever family it's, for many of them, just a few moments away from homelessness because there's no safety net to catch them. In Michigan, she says, we have just enacted legislation allowing year-old foster children to remain in the foster care system until the age of This allows them to continue to receive services like housing assistance, continued supervision from a caring adult.
They are thus able to pursue employment or continue their education. And, in fact, their futures can be brighter. RYAN Absolutely. The federal government reimburses states, with recent reform legislation, very significantly to allow young people to stay in foster care until their 21st birthdays, help them get through college, help them find an independent apartment. You know, the thing about Michigan is that the children of Michigan happen to be lucky because their commissioner is very reform minded.
She left the state supreme court in order to end her public service career reforming the Michigan child welfare system. But the welfare of children shouldn't hinge across 50 states on the disposition or attitude of an individual leader. We need more political will on this question. And we need it now. REHM Here's an anonymous email and you will understand why. It says, "I just wanted to let your speaker know children from wealthy families are left to fend for themselves. My father went to Harvard medical school and is a neurosurgeon. He repeatedly beat my mother even when she was pregnant.
He beat my brothers. My mother finally left him after having four children with him. We were left homeless. And what happens once they're there? RYAN In each of the cities in which we work we have a street outreach team. And they work very aggressively at all hours of the day and night to get into a relationship with young people on the street. So take the Hollywood strip for example, which is one of the last places in the United States where homeless young people are very visibly on display. Our teams will work on the street outreach van in Los Angeles bringing sandwiches, coats and some referral information.
And once young people begin to trust us and understand that we really want the best for them, young people will accept that invitation to come inside and get help at Covenant House. But it often takes many repeated trips. RYAN Well, young people are wary of what it is that this stranger pulling up in a van has in mind because a lot of the people who kids interact with on the streets are predators.
And kids are very savvy about this. So it's rare that we could pull up and offer someone a blanket or offer a kid a sandwich and have them hop in the van right away.
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That's not how kids survive. They survive by being skeptical and wary. And they have to see us out there night after night after night. And they have to talk with other homeless young people and say who is that? What is Covenant House? RYAN But over time, once they trust us and hear that we're doing good work and that there's a safe place to go, kids come inside the front door.
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RYAN No, that's right. There are many -- in fact, Paulie, who we were talking to earlier today left ten times. It was the 11th time when he just decided, OK, I'm going to stop using X and I'm going to stop engaging in the rave scene. And I'm going to listen to Covenant House with respect to the curfew. There are a lot of young people who have a really hard time with structure, right. And the thing that my parents gave me, and, I think, a lot of parents give their kids is structure. Okay, bedtime is X. You're going to wake up at Y. You're going to go to school. You're going to get a part-time job.
RYAN Kids on the street don't have that structure. And the chaos is infective in some ways. So, as a result of that, we sometimes see young people who come in the front door and who want more for their lives, but aren't ready to walk in consistently at P. You know what we can't let homeless young people be out on the streets at A. That's when the pimps and the pornographers and the predators lurk.
So our policy is to work with kids on an individual basis, but get some structure in their lives. RYAN They certainly can. In Detroit we were invited by the city to actually build schools for homeless young people. And we run one of two sets of charter schools for homeless young people across the United States. In the other Covenant Houses in the United States and Canada young people can either earn a GED through our program or can get their high school diploma, depending on the offering.