Searching for homeless youth on the streets of Burlington
Jesse is 19 and homeless. He has only one eye, which never stops searching his surroundings. He has to keep moving or he gets tense and restless. Built small and lean like a welterweight fighter, he claims to have once walked 27 hours from Burlington to his mother's house in New Hampshire. Since leaving home at 12, Jesse has been in more jails and institutions than he can remember, and admits to using "every drug but heroin." He doesn't see himself ever going clean, but insists, "I could if I wanted to."
Jack is 19 and homeless, too, but he's "straight-edge," meaning he doesn't use drugs or alcohol. The Burlington native has a lip ring, dyed red hair and an innocent face that belies the 34 foster homes he's been through since he was 3. Some of his foster families were as "white bread" as the Brady Bunch, Jack says, but others were unspeakably abusive. He became homeless at 18 when he was "aged out" of Vermont's foster-care system. Jack is the first member of his biological family to graduate high school, and plans to attend college to study acting, or possibly marine biology.
Cyn is also 19 and homeless. The Florida native moved to Burlington in January to live with her father and found a job three days later. She was a good student in high school and never drank booze, took drugs or got into trouble with the law. Her mother, a supervisor at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, brought her up in a strict household. Cyn couldn't stay out past midnight or get her ears pierced until she was 18. She ended up on the streets after her alcoholic, crack-addicted father cleaned out her checking account and left her stranded in North Hero. Next year, Cyn plans to return to Florida to attend college. "I know where I am and where my path lies," she says, "and I follow it."
It's hard to summarize a life, even one as brief as a teenager's, in a few sentences. That's especially true for people like Jesse, Jack and Cyn, who have had more life experiences than many adults twice their age. (Like most of the youths in this story, their last names are withheld to protect their privacy.) And the vague, catch-all moniker -- "homeless youth" -- doesn't do justice to their diverse pasts or the myriad extenuating circumstances that led to their predicaments.
No one knows for sure how many young people in Vermont are homeless. After 1996, the Vermont State Police stopped recording the number of times state and local law enforcement encountered runaways and homeless teens. But the Annie E. Casey "2004 Kids Count" estimates there are as many as 6000 "disconnected" youths in the state who are not working or attending school and don't have a place to call home. Many of these kids are remarkably intelligent, motivated and articulate; others are desperately fragile and in dire need of drug treatment and/or mental-health care. But their stories, as unique as fingerprints, obliterate many of the common stereotypes about how young people end up sleeping in cars, parks, alleys and shelters.
What Jesse, Jack and Cyn have in common -- besides being 19, resourceful and fiercely independent -- is that they're among the 500 young people who passed through the doors of the Spectrum drop-in center in Burlington last year. The storefront at 177 Pearl Street, which was renovated last year, is a safe haven where people between the ages of 14 and 21 can hang out, watch TV, do laundry, make a phone call, get a meal or take a shower.
For many of the teens, the drop-in center is their first tenuous step in from the cold -- sometimes literally. It's also an introduction to Spectrum's other services, including the overnight shelter, adolescent health clinic, transitional housing, drug and alcohol treatment and job training. For the ones who don't find the drop-in center on their own, Spectrum's street-outreach workers hit the streets daily, trying to make that initial contact.
On a recent warm afternoon at "drop-in," a handful of kids are hanging out, strumming guitars or snoozing on the two couches. Despite the dark decor and purple walls, the room is bright and sunny -- no curtains or blinds cover the windows. A card table at the front door holds a sign-in book (mostly to get data for fundraising), a stack of Spectrum pamphlets and a jar of condoms. There's an age limit to get in, but admission is free. And except for a few safety rules -- no drugs, alcohol, weapons, pets, etc. -- it's a nonjudgmental place where young folks can chill.
Justin Verette, 29, is the center's assistant outreach coordinator. He's a tall, burly, bear of a guy with short black hair, a goatee, a thick five o'clock shadow and arms tattooed in a dark spider-web pattern. Decked out in baggy shorts, sneakers and a gray Spectrum T-shirt, he bounces along at a brisk pace fueled by a combination of caffeine and adrenaline.
Verette is in a back room, where he and peer outreach worker Gavin are busily stocking their safety-orange backpacks with fresh supplies for the day: sandwiches, sodas, socks, toothbrushes, condoms, bleach kits, bandages, shampoo. Seventeen-year-old Gavin, small, slight and fair-skinned, with boyish features and a calm, gentle voice, was hired a couple of months ago to do outreach with Burlington's queer homeless teens. Statistically, gays, lesbians and "questioning" youth make up a disproportionately large share of the population at teen shelters. Typically, their gender-identity issues caused them to leave home, or get kicked out. Part of Gavin's job, which is funded by the Samara Foundation of Vermont, is to find out how many of these kids are living on the streets of Burlington.
With backpacks ready, we slip out the back door and turn the corner onto Church Street, which is bustling with pedestrians. Verette has been doing street-outreach work for about three and a half years and has built a complex web of relationships. Almost immediately, he recognizes a scruffy, twentysomething man across the street and heads in his direction.
"Hey, dude! I see you!" Verette bellows good-naturedly in a deep baritone voice. They exchange a firm handshake and Verette asks, "So, you coming by today?"
The man replies with a noncommittal shrug.
"I'll be back at drop-in in a couple of hours," says Verette. "Maybe I'll see you there?" His tone is inviting but not pushy.
The man acquiesces. "Yeah, sure. OK."
"Cool! Later, dude."
We continue down Church Street, but haven't made it far before Verette spots more people he knows. Most are in their late teens or early twenties, such as the two teenaged girls pushing baby strollers. Verette also visits with a pair of middle-aged, bearded men sitting on a bench.
Whether any of these folks are homeless is impossible to determine from their appearance. Plenty of Burlington residents sporting a hippie-grunge look drive SUVs and wield platinum credit cards. Likewise, there are young people with iPods and pricey sneakers who sleep on North Beach in the summer and in walk-in ATMs during the winter. There's no standard dress for the homeless.
But appearances don't matter to Verette -- he talks to everyone. The goal, he says, isn't to assess someone's living situation but to make a connection.
"I like to sit down with these guys and find out what's going on. You know, just be a listener," he says. "When you give these guys a chance to be heard, that makes them feel better about themselves."
By the time we've reached College Street and turn the corner toward City Hall Park, Verette has high-fived or shaken hands with more than a dozen people. Several shout, "Yo, Justin!" as he passes, like a local celebrity. It seems all the guys want to be his friend; a couple of the girls admit they have crushes on him. Someone at Spectrum joked recently that Verette is "the unofficial mayor of Burlington" -- at least among 14- to 21-year-olds.
We enter the park and approach a clean-cut teenaged couple seated by the fountain.
"Hey! What are you guys up to?" Verette asks, rocking side to side with excess energy.
"Nothing, just chilling," the boy says, looking bored.
"You want a sandwich?" Verette asks, unshouldering his backpack.
The youth's face lights up. "Oh, yeah!"
Verette hands the kid a bologna sandwich, which he wolfs down. His girlfriend opts for peanut butter and jelly. Both accept a can of soda and a condom.
Nearby are four young people from Colchester, one of whom slaps Verette's hand. Kaitlyn "Punk" Rock is a 16-year-old girl with a Mohawk, carabiners dangling from her earlobes and a forearm scarred with the words, "Live, Love, Burn, Die." Rock says she's been hanging out at drop-in for about three years. She's not homeless, she says, but recently left her parents' house for about a month and "couch surfed" with friends. As with many clients who use the drop-in center, her definition of homelessness is fuzzy and changes from day to day.
"I wish they had a Spectrum in Colchester." Rock says. "I'd go there every day."
Why? "They're not old people," she explains. "Parents say they understand the pressures of drugs and stuff, but they don't really. Justin and those guys are like good friends. They're cool and understanding. And, they've gone through it themselves."
Undoubtedly, some of Verette's street cred comes from his having "gone through it." A California native, he grew up in Modesto and spent summers in L.A. When he was 14, his stepfather threw him out of the house for getting his ear pierced. Nearly every day now, Verette hears stories that are similar -- and stranger. "We had this one kid whose family said to me that because he 'doesn't know God,' he shouldn't live with them," Verette recalls. "I was like, did they really just say that?"
In high school, Verette got into drugs for several years, and then tried to attend college, but it didn't work out. He ended up homeless on the streets of Santa Cruz, sleeping on the beach, in back yards, in friends' closets or in his car. Verette says he finally hit bottom at 24. Ironically, it was the homeless people he'd met who inspired him to clean up his act and turn his life around.
"That's why I sometimes tell these guys that not everyone grows up and gets their shit together at 18 years old. [With] some people it takes a little while," Verette says. "The way I talk to these guys is the way I would have wanted someone to talk to me. Because I would have been a Spectrum client back when I was a kid."
For the next few hours, Gavin and Verette walk a slow loop through downtown, primarily up and down Church Street, through City Hall Park and onto surrounding streets and alleys. They stop to talk with a couple of kids hanging out in front of Dunkin Donuts on Main Street who are "spainging" -- street slang for "Spare some change?" One accepts a sandwich, the other a new toothbrush.
On other days, especially in the colder months, the street-outreach teams venture down to the waterfront, along the beaches and train cars, through the woods and into the Old North End. Oftentimes they'll come across someone who needs a sleeping bag, a pair of dry socks or a bite to eat.
At first glance, this process can seem like simple charity work. But there's more to street outreach than dispensing free condoms and soft drinks. Tara Messier is Spectrum's outreach coordinator. At 30, she's been involved in this work for more than a decade. She points out that the handouts may be essential items, but they're also icebreakers -- a way to cultivate trust and mutual respect with clients, who may have been burned repeatedly by social-service agencies. About 65 percent of street-outreach clients receive no public assistance, Messier points out, and something as trivial as a tube of toothpaste can be enough to make a connection.
Spectrum's street-outreach workers didn't always enjoy a good reputation, especially among the Burlington Police. Deputy Chief Walt Decker recalls that when the program started in the late 1990s, there were questions about the outreach workers' abilities to interact with law enforcement. The police heard secondhand stories of runaway teens being spotted by Spectrum workers but not being reported, as the law requires. At other times, Decker recalls, there were instances when criminal activity was being protected behind "a cloak of confidentiality," regardless of the situation.
But Decker concedes that the police sometimes misunderstood outreach work. He recalls a time when the BPD was receiving citizen complaints about sketchy-looking characters pulling items from their knapsacks and doing hand-to-hand exchanges in City Hall Park. Suspecting they might be drug dealers, the police posted a detective nearby. The suspicious characters turned out to be street-outreach workers handing out condoms.
For their part, Spectrum workers used to complain that Burlington cops didn't respect their space or their work. When the drop-in center opened, officers would sometimes barge in the front door unannounced and make a scene. Today, they wait outside on the sidewalk to be greeted by a Spectrum worker.
Relations between Spectrum and the BPD have improved considerably in other ways, too. When Executive Director Mark Redmond came on board a couple of years ago, he began talking to local merchants about their concerns, and went on ride-alongs with the cops to see things from their perspective. About eight months ago, the outreach workers began attending the daily police roll call, when officers' assignments are issued and relevant issues discussed. Both sides say that things have been copasetic ever since. And Verette applauds several of the downtown officers he knows, saying they have been great to work with.
Gauging progress with Spectrum's clients can be trickier, especially since the definition of "success" varies so much from client to client. For some it means getting a job, finding an apartment or going to school. For others, Messier explains, simply getting them to accept a sandwich after six months of trying can be a major achievement.
"It's also huge for a young person to say, 'I'm having a tough day' and share part of their story," the outreach coordinator says. "I feel honored to be let into their world, because they don't have to trust me. Who am I? I'm just some woman in a gray sweatshirt. But every day you hear these incredible, heart-wrenching stories. Because they do trust us."
Both Messier and Verette have noticed some troubling trends in recent years. For example, there's the growing incidence of "survival sex" -- young people exchanging sexual favors for drugs, food or a place to sleep, especially in the winter. And, despite a nationwide decline in teen pregnancy rates, Messier says Spectrum has seen a marked increase in the number of teenaged homeless mothers over the last year.
One of the most disturbing developments is the prevalence of homeless youth with profound, unaddressed mental-health needs. Spectrum has counselors on staff. However, many of the people they encounter are too old to access the agency's services, or have conditions that don't meet the much higher threshold necessary to access adult mental-health services at the Howard Center.
Redmond recalls a client who recently came by drop-in with a severe eating disorder. The staff wanted to help out but knew the client needed more psychiatric care than they could provide. Another client became so enraged by the murder of Burlington woman Laura Winterbottom last winter that he began carrying around a knife and saying he was going to hunt down her attacker and kill him. Redmond puts it bluntly: "Some of these kids are walking time bombs just waiting to go off."
But Messier and Verette both insist that for every one of those stories, there are others of young people who demonstrate remarkable resiliency. Consider "Lakeesha" (her assumed name), a clean-cut 22-year-old with a soft, monotone voice and blue eyes that barely blink or look away when she's spoken to.
Lakeesha was 8 years old when she snorted her first line of cocaine. "I actually used it because I saw my mom's ex-boyfriend beating up my mom," she says. "Every time he did a line, he'd beat up my mom. So I figured that if I did a line, I could beat him up. And I did. I saved my mom's life that day."
Lakeesha shows no emotion when she recounts pieces of her violent past. She was homeless off and on for about five years, was institutionalized several times, and still suffers from a number of mental-health issues, including attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and severe personality disorder.
But Lakeesha is also getting her life on track. With Spectrum's help, she's moving into a transitional housing unit this week. She's looking for a job, and is optimistic about her future. "I want to be a DJ," she says, cracking a smile. "And I like working with kids." One day, she adds, she wants to open a shelter for homeless youth herself.
Stories like Lakeesha's make Messier's work worthwhile, she says. "When you think homeless, you think heroin, prostitution, stealing and sleeping outside," she says. "What people often don't think about is the other side of our folks, that they're musicians and artists and survivors. And they love."