From the December 2013 edition of the Dallas Morning News
by Wendy Hundley
Jazmien is only 17, but she’s faced more than her share of hardship in her young life.
She grew up fast, taking care of a sick mother and siblings when she was just a child herself.
“They called me a soldier,” she said of the moniker bestowed on her by family members.
That ability to soldier on amid tough times has come in handy over the past couple of years.
Two years ago, Jazmien joined the ranks of homeless teens, a largely invisible group that often slips through the cracks in the web of social service agencies.
“You don’t recognize these kids as needing anything because they blend in,” said Julie Davenport, a Flower Mound stay-at-home mom who is committed to helping this vulnerable population.
For these youths, “homeless isn’t toothless living under a bridge, drunk,” Davenport said. It’s “‘I don’t have a roof over my head and I’m scared.’”
The number of these youths is startling: The Dallas school district served 2,598 homeless students last year and 1,700 so far this year.
But this isn’t just a city problem.
In January, the Collin County Homeless Coalition reported 1,310 homeless students in school districts throughout the affluent suburban county.
The Lewisville school district now has 507 homeless students, down from 632 last year.
Experts say these numbers, often culled from government forms distributed in schools, may be grossly underestimated.
“Unsheltered youth tend to avoid contact with adults, camps in discreet locations, move frequently and bypass available services,” according to a 2012 Texas Interagency Council for the Homeless report. “This makes homeless youth extremely difficult to identify.”
Most youths become homeless as a result of family conflict or abuse, or they age out of the foster care system, the study found. Once on their own, they’re easy prey for pimps or other forms of exploitation. Substance abuse is rampant, often a way to cope with the stress of their situation.
Jazmien doesn’t elaborate on why she is no longer living with her Dallas family. “My mom left me on my own two years ago,” she said matter-of-factly.
At first, the teen moved in with an aunt, but that arrangement didn’t last long. “She kicked me out,” Jazmien said.
For the next few months, she lived on the streets in Lewisville, sleeping in parks, in A-train depots or “couch surfing” at friends’ homes.
Although a job at a fast-food restaurant put some money in her pocket, she discovered she wasn’t old enough to rent an apartment or get a motel room.
“One night I couldn’t find anywhere to sleep,” she said. “I just started walking around. I didn’t sleep for 36 hours.”
She learned to be resourceful.
She discovered an apartment complex where a bathroom was sometimes left unlocked. She’d slip inside before the door was locked and sleep until morning, sneaking out when someone unlocked the door.
She met a woman who worked at a local motel who would sometimes let her spend the night in an unoccupied room if there was one available.
In her lonely, unsettled life, Jazmien found comfort in one constant, one certainty that would never turn her away or kick her out.
“Basketball kept me going,” she said. “I’m not going to lie. I hung out with some bad groups. But basketball saved my life. I could be in jail or dead.”
Earlier this year, a Lewisville High School counselor told her about Denton County Youth Today (YoTo), an organization that operates an after-school center for homeless youth at Lewisville’s First United Methodist Church.
“We’ve served 15 to 20 so far this year,” YoTo director Jessica Peters said of the teens who have come to the drop-in center that is open weekdays from 4 p.m. to 8 or 8:30 p.m.
The large facility provides a place for them to take showers, do laundry, have a meal and get help with their homework.
While the church gives temporary refuge, it cannot provide 24-hour shelter.
“We knew that all we could do was the drop-in center. Our building is too busy to have children stay here,” said Lynda Whitman, the church’s director of family ministries. “Our hope is that someone will provide transitional housing for them.”
That mantle has been taken up by Journey to Dream, a faith-based nonprofit organization focused on helping teens avoid destructive behaviors and build healthy values.
“They need some permanency,” said Davenport, who recently organized a fundraising event that raised $40,000 for Journey to Dream and the shelter project.
The goal is to raise $350,000 to buy a home in the next year that will be licensed to serve up to 14 youths. Volunteers are needed to form a committee and launch a fundraising campaign in January.
“We have a lot of hopeless, hurting kids,” said Kim Hinkle, who has recognized the need for such a home since co-founding Journey to Dream a decade ago.
She envisions a place to serve homeless teens, runaways and youths in crisis, and provide them with counseling and support services.
“We don’t have anything like this in Denton County,” Hinkle said. “We want a safe place, a refuge for hurting kids.”
Such a place would be welcomed by Jazmien, who is currently staying with a friend. She appreciates having a roof over her head but knows that it’s temporary and that her future remains uncertain.
But despite the challenges she faces, she remains stoic, like any good soldier.
“I’m a positive person,” she said. “I don’t focus on the negative.”
BY THE NUMBERS: Homeless students
Plano ISD 272
Grand Prairie ISD 979
Mesquite ISD 328
Frisco ISD 178
Coppell ISD 61
Duncanville ISD 22
HOW TO HELP: Shelter project
For more information on the shelter project, contact Kim Hinkle at email@example.com.