By Alysha Webb-Pigg for Eugene Daily News
Each year, thousands of teens in Eugene can be classified as homeless. Threatened with prostitution, sex trafficking, and substance abuse, these youth are too often left to fend for themselves in an extremely threatening environment.
James Ewell is the supervisor of the case management and street outreach team at New Roads, who provides daytime support for homeless youth, and has been an employee for nine years. New Roads is a sister program of Station 7, a full youth homeless shelter. These programs, and James specifically, hope to provide a safe setting for homeless youth in Eugene and would like to change the way people approach youth homelessness.
“Youth homelessness in Eugene is a topic,” says James. “I have not spent a lot of time other places, but I don’t get the impression that [youth homelessness] is more of an issue in Eugene, but I think a lot of people have made that argument.”
Although all homelessness needs to be battled through well thought out programs, youth homelessness has its own complexities.
“Youth homelessness is different in a lot of ways than adult homelessness because they are not all necessarily sleeping outside, a lot of them are couch surfing and going from one friend’s house to another,” James says.
Additionally, James feels many people have misconceptions about homeless youth. He believes it is important for people to understand these are “not youth choosing to leave a home that’s good, but youth that are leaving really bad situations.”
The common misconceptions that homeless youth are defiant and choosing to lead rebellious lives replace what might otherwise be empathetic feelings in community members.
Areas like downtown Eugene are often responsible for why people look at youth in a negative light. It is not uncommon to see youth smoking cigarettes, acting out, and engaging in deviant behavior.
James says, “I think [homelessness in Eugene] gets identified more because of issues related to downtown. Anytime there is youth in the age range we serve downtown, people make the assumption that they are homeless youth.”
Instead, James says that, “A lot of our youth are just struggling to survive on a daily basis with being homeless. They’re not the ones that are spending a lot of time downtown being loud…they don’t want to get a lot of attention.”
Another person that works directly with homelessness in Eugene is Kristin Lee, the Director of Runaway and Homeless Services at Looking Glass. With a message that builds off of the thought that no youth should have to worry about their safety and stability, Kristin detailed that the increasing homeless numbers in Eugene reflect the trend of a nation.
“People are struggling everywhere across the United States,” explained Lee. “I don’t consider one community’s needs greater than another. Economically Oregon is struggling. Our citizens are struggling.”
Because youth homelessness is not as visible as many believe it to be, outreach programs for youth shelters are necessary to help teens who might otherwise be too intimidated to seek assistance. The New Roads program James supervises goes out 6 days a week on outreach trips.
Additionally, James says the outreach team tries to inform anyone who looks like they are between the ages of 11-17 about the New Roads program. He adds how identifying homeless youth can be difficult because “…youth are still youth. They care about their appearance…I don’t think someone can just walk downtown and say ‘this is a homeless’ youth.”
Another challenge for the youth homeless outreach programs is, “a lot of homeless youth are used to being hurt by adults or somehow taken advantage of for the adults gain…we want to make them feel comfortable,“ says James.
Aside from being homeless, many of these destitute youth have other barriers to battle in order to feel comfortable and confident members of a society.
“Mental health issues are huge. I would say over 80% of the youth we serve have some kind of diagnosable health condition. The vast majority of youth we serve have experienced some kind of abuse,” James adds.
“Issues that youth enter RHY (runaway and homeless youth) programs vary from youth to youth,” detailed Lee on the issues youth come into programs with. “They are struggling to make it work in a recession. Staff are trained to meet basic needs as the first step. People are not able to focus on ending their crisis if they haven’t eaten, slept, showered, nor have clean clothes. We use a trauma informed approach, positive youth development, motivational interviewing as well as work with our behavioral health team to ensure that our clients receive the best care.”
Unfortunately, threats outside of an unsafe home too often place homeless youth in more dangerous conditions than they were previously in. James says prostitution is something programs for homeless youth see often. Additionally, as sex trafficking is becoming more of a popular issue, these programs are seeing a rise in some of those numbers.
In order to battle this heavy combination of burdens that many of these youth enter homeless programs with, New Roads has 3 case managers, 2 mental health counselors, and a school next door.
“Last year we saw 2,800 individual youth 13,000 times, so they are coming repeatedly: everyday or most days,” James said proudly, attesting to the success of the program. It seems clear that supportive outlets like New Roads and Station 7, have a positive impact on youth who utilize the services.
Aside from these programs, James does not believe any other shelters in town specifically cater to youth. During the winters, a special city run program, called Egan Warming Centers, is available when the weather drops below 28 degrees. These warming centers were created several years ago after an elderly homeless man in Eugene died in the middle of the street from the extreme cold. According to James, most of these centers are in churches and one used is specifically for housing youth.
Although programs serving homeless youth in Eugene have been successful, more can always be done. James says economic conditions have definitely led to a surge in homeless families, of which his program serves if they are 21 years of age or younger.
To keep programs for youth homeless thriving, James says, “Funding is always a huge issue the government can play a role in.”
With a relatively grim situation, workers stay positive because of the community they live in and the types of support people in the area are willing to provide.
“Lane County is a very inspirational community to live in,” explained Lee. “The county is the 2nd largest in the state of Oregon and this community does a wonderful job collaborating with each other to help its people in need. Every day I get the opportunity to work with hard working, caring people who are trying to make a difference-either in their own lives or by helping others.”
The New Roads program is, ironically, housed between many old roads on 7th street near the Whiteaker district in Eugene. Although New Roads challenges social structure everyday in order to pave new roads for these homeless youth, it may take a larger awakening in the community to put a full halt to this pressing issue. By looking at issues like youth homelessness through the lenses of community workers, like James and Kristin, perhaps we will all find the need to open our hearts, minds, and hands to youth in need.