Kids in Crisis: Helping homeless youth up off the streets

EUGENE, Ore. - Not too long ago, Misty Pelkey and Rickey Johnston were on their own, in survival mode, on the streets.

"Pretty much I had to fight to survive," said Pelkey.

"I started traveling the country," Johnston said. "I used to be like really bad into drugs."

Both are now students in the New Roads program through Looking Glass Youth & Family Services.

They aren't alone in needing a helping hand up off the streets.

The statistics on youth homelessness are difficult to pinpoint.

A state report last year listed about 2,200 Lane County students who are considered homeless and attending public schools. A student is considered homeless if they don't have a fixed address or if their family shares a home with one or more other families.

A Lane County Human Service census in 2013 said about 1,100 people ages 16 to 21 are literally homeless: kids not living with their family and staying at an emergency shelter.

Family dysfunction, sexual abuse, drug abuse, getting too old for foster care - those are just some of the reasons a young person might find him or herself homeless.

"What we'll see is youth who are the oldest youth, and because their family is homeless and doubling up but they're not a family, they will get sacrificed and leave the home so that there are other resources for younger children," explained Kirstin Lee, the New Roads program director.

Many of these kids in crisis wind up at Looking Glass's Station 7 emergency shelter for youth ages 11 to 17.

"We're really here to hit their immediate needs and help right the ship that way," Lee said.

The program was a critical lifeline for Pelkey and Johnston. New Roads offers case management, meals, laundry and job and education counseling.

"Now I don't drink at all," Pelkey said. "I go to school. I go to work. Right now I'm trying to find another job."

At Hosea Youth Services of Eugene, that quest for jobs has been taken to the next level.

Young people who want to take that next step are learning graphic design and making t-shirts at Hosea Wear.

"Show them the graphic design part and then have them design t-shirts that are then seen in the community," explained David Williams, Hosea Youth Services assistant director. "It helps them go, 'Wow, I can be a contributor, a positive to the community'."

Williams said early talks are beginning with City Hall about the possibility of a Eugene youth center.

"Our next push now is to have a place that has 50 beds. That's our target right now," he said. "If we can provide 50 beds and 50 jobs for these people and let them live there, I think we'll start seeing a lot more kids transition off the streets."

For Johnston, there's some time pressure. He'll be too old for the New Roads program in April.

But he is confident of finding work and someday going to college.

"I didn't really have that great of a life growing up," he said, "and I would like, if I ever had any kids, that I had something to pass on to them."