Home » Features » Life as a homeless teen

Life as a homeless teen


By Marissa Roper
Features Editor

Per request of the source, the minor’s real name has been replaced with Adam.

Waking up in a warm, comfortable bed on an easy Sunday morning is not always an option for every teen living in Arizona, in fact, many teens don’t get the kind of luxury that most people take advantage of.

Between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away in a year, and according to the National Runaway Switchboard, teens are at a higher risk for homelessness than adults.

One of those 2 million teens includes 17-year-old Adam. Adam , who left his home in 2010, wakes up everyday in the Tumbleweed Young Adult Program (YAP), just one of the many programs set up through the Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development.

This non-profit organization was founded in 1972 to help troubled youth, from ages 16 to 18 in the community.

Adam, who has been living at the YAP center for two months, is learning to get back on his feet.

“I didn’t know what it was all up to be until I actually came to the group home,” said Adam, “I was at a previous group home, and my case worker told me that this center would be a better fit for me. Since I have gotten here, (the center) has given me the chance to be more independent.”

The mission of the YAP program is to provide a ‘safe place’ for homeless youth. “Our goal is to provide needs such as food, care, clothing, some counseling (to teens in need) and to take them off the streets and care for them,” said Carl Tuitavuki, the Program Manager for the Young Adult Program.

In order to get into this program, teens have to be at risk of being homeless or already living on the streets.  Teens who are sleeping on a relatives’ couch, friend’s house, or an over crowded home usually come to live at the YAP center.

“My mom and I started to fight back in 2010, and I told her that I wanted to live in a group home,” said Adam. With seven sisters and four brothers living across the country in Chicago, and mother recently passing away, Adam remains dependent on the YAP program.

“No one really likes these places, because of the situation you are placed in, but it’s nice here,” said Adam, “the center gives me the opportunity to save my money, and get on my feet.”

Teen members of the shelter are required to pay rent, which goes back to them, by spending it to improve the physicality.

“We put (the teens) in a setting that allows them to be independent and responsible,” said Tuitavuki, who has been working at the center for eight years.

YAP teaches skill training, job development, and general life skills needed to be independent.

“A lot of these kids are struggling with issues of abandonment or neglect,” said YAP Counselor and Case Manager, Erin Garner. “The majority of our clients have some sort of sexual, physical, or verbal abuse in their past, so we work through those kind of issues. Most of them struggle with self esteem because of the things they have experienced.”

Garner, who has a Masters degree for counseling and has been with YAP for four years, works with many other employees to help troubled teens.

“We attempt to build trust with them, let them know that we are here to help them. And let them go at their own speed,” said Garner. “Part of the problem we face is that many teens are reluctant to get help at this age.  Every once in a while there is a teen that is closed off and has a hard time trusting people.

Trevor Hardeman, another worker at the center, acts almost as an unofficial parent for the teens. ““I’m basically the one that gets them up in the morning, and makes sure they are keeping with their schedule,” he said, “ if they are suppose to be at work or school, I make sure they are there.  I handle all their medication. We also have cleanliness checks three times a week to make sure the rooms are clean. I do feel like I’m kind of the enforcer, but not in a mean way. They know that I mean business.”

Each client is required to be off property from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to work, go to school, or look for a job.

“As long as they are doing their chores and keeping their rooms clean, they have basic free time,” said Hardeman. “When they come and go, they don’t have to tell us where they are going, just that they are leaving and must tell us when they are back on property.”

Adam is not often at the shelter during the day, he works at the local McDonalds and pays rent for his apartment-like living space.

“(The center is) a lot like an apartment complex, everyone is kind of doing their own thing. Some people have a room mate, but I have my own room,” said Adam.

“It’s very hands off, we are trying to teach them to do things on their own,” said Hardeman. “Sometimes people have to learn things for themselves, but as long as they know I am out there trying to guide them in the right direction, that’s all I can really do. Whether they want to take my advice or listen to me, that is totally up to them. “

However, teens are required to meet with their councilor once a week for an hour of counseling and/or case management.

“I meet with them on a weekly basis and access where they are at, what needs to be talked about, what kind of coping or independent living skills they need,” said Garner.

It is also Garner’s job to take care of school enrollment, doctor, dental, and other necessary paperwork.

“Some days you feel like you aren’t helping (the teens) at all,” said Garner. “But then there are days where the youth will come to you and say that you have helped them so much.”

Workers grow to favor the teens that come to live at YAP.

“I’ve been wanting to work with youth my entire life,” said Hardeman. “

“I do feel passionate about helping these kids because I was an at risk youth so I kind of feel like I can relate to some of the issues and problems they are going through.”

Hardeman and many of the other workers have grown close to the clients at YAP, while still remaining professional.

“This age is a very vulnerable age and you give the wrong messages, they may think that I’m their buddy or their pal, and that’s a dangerous place to be in,” said Hardeman. “But, I love joking around with kids, which is why I’m in this to begin with.”

Tuitavuki attempted to break the homeless teen stereotype. “Yes, homeless teens are taken in here, but they are regular teens,” he said. “These are normal teenagers and people would never even know that they are homeless. They have just grown up in some pretty difficult circumstances. They go to school like most kids; they are very respectful for the most part and they are all very good kids.”

The Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development has helped over 3,000 teens in need in the last 40 years.

“To see these kids go on to college and get their own apartments, get a family and a career, things like that, are just gratifying know that they are being successful and independent and not stuck in the same cycle,” said Garner.

Adam is planning on going to Phoenix Community College for his Social Associates degree, and hopefully later to Florida for a Bachelors degree.


Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development

Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development is an nonprofit organization founded in 1972, by Soroptimist, a small group of older women who came up with the idea that Phoenix needed to have services for homeless youth. After being in business for 40 years, there are over 100 employees and over 3,000 youth and families have been served every year. The mission of Tumbleweed is to serve homeless youth in the Valley and provide them with safety, resources, and opportunities.  Homeless youth from ages 12 to 25 are helped through several programs that include counseling, skill training, short and long term shelter, meals, showers, and other necessities. Specific programs pinpoint certain needs for young adults, children, bisexual teens, and immigrant teens.  Teens can attain high school diplomas through the Maricopa County School District and other educational programs for teens.

Something as simple as donating food, clothes, gift cards, money, bus passes, or volunteer time always helps the shelter. The center raises awareness by hosting breakfasts, golf tournaments, and an annual gala each year. The center is always looking for help and ways to raise awareness of teen homelessness.



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