The number of homeless youth in La Plata County is hard to measure, but people who work in youth services say there is no doubt it is a significant problem.
The number is difficult to measure because it is invisible, and people are good at concealing it, said Jennifer Turner, a youth advocate and school multi-disciplinary assessment review team coordinator for La Plata Youth Services.
One Durango High School counselor told Turner that she knew “dozens and dozens” of kids who didn’t have a permanent home and were moving from couch to couch in various peoples’ homes.
“These are not kids who just ran away from home,” Turner said. “There was really something to run from. Forty to 60 percent experienced physical abuse, and 17 to 35 percent experienced sexual abuse.”
Turner said she usually makes initial contact with homeless young people when they’re referred to her for truancy because homeless kids are often disconnected from school. Between Durango School District 9-R and the Bayfield School District, 230 students annually meet the criteria for habitual truancy as calculated from 2012 to 2014, she said. (The Ignacio School District also works with La Plata Youth Services, but its numbers were not provided.)
“Looking through the lens of truancy has allowed our community to identify and serve some of the highest-need youth in the county who otherwise may not receive intervention,” Turner said.
Schools attempt to resolve the situation, but if they are unable to, they call upon La Plata Youth Services, which serves at-risk kids. Turner said since September 2013, Youth Services and/or the multi-disciplinary assessment review team have served 45 youths.
In reviewing the kids she has worked with, Turner found in her initial data that:
51 percent is of color.
24 percent live with families experiencing homelessness.
40 percent has run away from home.
67 percent has significant mental-health needs.
60 percent is struggling with substance abuse.
31 percent has disabilities.
73 percent has experienced complex trauma.
47 percent lives with families that have past child-welfare involvement.
20 percent is living with a nonparent guardian.
69 percent is living in low-income households.
“Furthermore, upon referral, 84 percent of these youth are not receiving direct services from any community human-services agency,” Turner said.
The National Coalition for the Homeless has collected considerable data about homeless youths. The coalition identified two populations that are particularly vulnerable. About 25 percent of former foster youth became homeless between 2½ and four years after they turned 18, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. And between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youths identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Lou Kiene, board president of Manna Soup Kitchen, said they see many families with children along with solo teenagers and young adults at Manna. Recently, he said, they discovered a 15-year-old girl living on the street and they managed to help her through Volunteers of America, which operates the Durango Community Shelter and Southwest Safehouse.
But the VOA is not a long-term solution. No specific services exist for unaccompanied youths who are homeless in La Plata County, Turner said, because the Durango Community Shelter requires them to have an adult or guardian with them. Durango once had a homeless shelter for teenagers, but it closed because of a lack of funding.
That doesn’t mean VOA has not provided housing to homeless youths because many show up with their mothers at the safehouse or with one or more parents at the shelter. In 2014, between the two facilities, 135 children had a roof over their heads and meals.
Another piece of the picture is higher levels of unemployment or lower wages for younger workers, said Maureen Malizewski, director of La Plata County Thrive!: A Living Wage Coalition. Working with the Region 9 Economic Development Council, the coalition has calculated a single-person household needs to make $12.40 an hour to make a living wage in the county. About 27 percent of workers in the county are not meeting that threshold, she said. A living wage is defined as enough money to pay for housing, food, transportation and child care.
A fledgling task force is forming and working with Jennifer Lopez, director of the governor’s Homeless Initiatives project, to look at the homeless youth situation in La Plata County.
This story was corrected to say that La Plata Youth Services also works with the Ignacio School District, but the numbers were not provided for that district.