Q&A: Covenant House President Kevin Ryan Interviewed by Newark Star-Ledger
They are homeless, eking out a living on the streets, but largely invisible to us: Teenagers, some of whom have run away from abusive parents only to find more dangers on their own. Others who are gay have been exiled and shunned by their families. Some simply age out of the foster care system, without a family to guide them with love and support across the bridge to independence, self-love and self-sufficiency.
In their new book “Almost Home”, Kevin Ryan, the president of Covenant House International, and Tina Kelley, a former New York Times reporter who lives in Maplewood, profile six young people, including one from Newark, who reached out to Covenant House on their journey past abuse, drug addiction, sexual exploitation, violence and depression.
Ryan, who lives in Fair Haven, was appointed New Jersey’s first state child advocate in 2003 and also led reforms as the state’s first commissioner of the Department of Children and Families. Star-Ledger editorial writer Linda Ocasio spoke with him recently about homeless teens.
Q. What’s the scope of the problem?
A. There are 2 million homeless kids in the United States in any given year, but they are largely invisible. Homeless teenagers blend in, they couch-surf, they hide in the wide open. It’s true all across America, whether it’s under boardwalks in Atlantic City or Asbury Park, in 24-hour doughnut shops in the Midwest, riding subway cars in New York and D.C. or pacing the Hollywood strip.
So it’s hard for the world at large to see and understand the scope of the problem. And when people do find a homeless teenager, they may stop short because they don’t know how to help. We wrote “Almost Home” to reveal the heart and face of these kids, and recommend concrete ways all of us can make a difference for them.
Q. What do people need to know about homeless youth?
A. These kids are homeless through no fault of their own. They’re running from violence and abuse. Or a parent died. Or poverty crushed their families. Or drug addiction scalded their homes and they have no one left to look out for them.
But even so, most homeless kids are brimming with wonder about the future, like kids do. I’ve never met a young person who couldn’t be persuaded to dream very big dreams and work toward them, but someone has to encourage and unleash that. When young people are encouraged to strive and aspire, they usually do so in spectacular ways that outmatch our expectations.
Q. Homeless youth learn to be “invisible” on the street to avoid predators.
A. “Paulie,” the Alaskan youth, walked me across the city in his ritual of getting invisible: buying one cup of water in a food court and refilling it all day long. It allowed him to blend in. “Benjamin” spent long stretches at the gym in Houston, often keeping his stuff there. They’re survivors of the highest order.
Q. Many still long for their parents, no matter the abuse they suffered at their hands. How do you explain this?
A. Homelessness strips them of a sense of self and belonging. Since those families are the only vestiges of home that most homeless kids have, they often pine for their people, no matter what has happened. We saw that with every young person we followed.
“Keith’s” mother abandoned him in a Newark apartment that caught fire. Her drug addiction overwhelmed her. His entire adolescence was consumed with finding her, waiting for her to return, hugging her again. As a young man, he realized he had to get beyond this fantasy and it was grueling for him.
Sometimes, we have to go back home again in order to make peace and move forward.
Q. What are the special challenges facing gay youth who end up on the streets?
A. Gay and lesbian young people are disproportionally and overwhelmingly represented among homeless youth, because so many are met with hate and rejection when they come out. The consequences can be deadly.
My first Thanksgiving at Covenant House, back in 1992, I met three teenagers — two had HIV, one had full-blown AIDS — and they were planning the pop songs for their funerals. They were each gay, kicked out of their homes. Each had fallen into a trafficking ring and been prostituted near Times Square. It just breaks your heart, you know? They fall into the streets, and they keep falling until, for many of them, it is too late.
Q. How does foster care fail our young?
A. Despite steep declines in the number of kids in foster care, the number of kids who leave care without any family has actually risen in the last decade. In 2010, about 28,000 teenagers left foster care with no families and more than one-fifth of them became homeless within a year. In 18 cities served by Covenant House in the United States, 40 percent of the teenagers in the shelters spent time in the child welfare system.
Government invests billions of dollars protecting and caring for abused and neglected children, but far too many leave foster care with no permanent families or safety net. When I ran New Jersey’s child welfare system, Job 1 was finding these children a forever family and it was daunting work.
So I am not suggesting it is easy. But it is urgent and requires immediate public attention.
Q. Your book offers a number of solutions.
A. We wanted it to be an encyclopedia of solutions, big and small. Sometimes, it’s something as simple as mentoring or coaching a team. It can be helping to strengthen laws against sex trafficking or fixing foster care.
The most important thing in a young person’s life is an adult who unconditionally loves and is devoted to them. On their shoulders, a young person can reach for the stars. It’s critical for a young person to leave foster care with a forever family. It could be reconnecting with their kin, or adoption or guardianship.
A fairly recent federal program reimburses states that give children the opportunity to be in a guardianship relationship and to stay in care until their 21st birthdays, but too few states are participating. What can I say? Kids don’t vote.
A. Very common. The journey to safety and healing is not a straight line for kids.
“Muriel” in Vancouver struggled over and over to kick drugs. She was hooked by age 13, on cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy, you name it. And she fell prey to pimps and trafficking. And yet, in the worst of it, she recalled a voice that once said to her, “You’re better than this.” She couldn’t remember who said it. Over several months, that voice resonated in her head and brought her back.
Anyone of us can be that voice. We can be hope in the world for these kids.
This story was originally posted at NJ.com.