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Homeless Youths' Plight Is Perilous, Even in the Midwest

Society: Study of runaways in eight Heartland cities shows that most ran away to escape abuse, only to be assaulted on the streets.

September 01, 2002|ROBERT E. PIERRE | THE WASHINGTON POST

DES MOINES — Shane Stewart trolls underpasses, bridges and back alleys for signs of life. A stashed backpack. Boards slightly ajar on an abandoned building. Discarded candy wrappers or soda cans. Signs that might lead him to a homeless child.

"It's amazing how many kids are out there," Stewart, a youth outreach worker, said as he rode alongside dusty railroad tracks on the edges of downtown. "When you think of Des Moines, you don't think of kids in the street. But they're there."

A couple of years ago, he crossed paths with Gretchen Kogold, who slept on friends' couches, sometimes on the streets or in a parked car after leaving her father's home at age 16 because she could no longer stand the beatings.

"For me, it was either leave or end up dead," said Kogold, now 20, who lives at the local YWCA. "That's how bad it had gotten."

Homelessness in cities such as Des Moines is not as conspicuous as in New York, Washington or Chicago, where it's not uncommon to see bodies curled up on steam grates and huddled masses gathered in public parks to await their daily soup-kitchen rations.

No matter the city, living on the streets is just as perilous, particularly for young people, according to initial findings of a $3-million study to determine where homeless youths come from, why they're on the streets and what happens as they grow into adults.

In interviews with 455 homeless youths in eight Midwestern cities, including Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, most said they left home to escape abuse only to be beaten, sexually assaulted and robbed on the streets. Many traded sex to survive, disturbing behavior that researchers fear could have lasting effects as they grow into adults.

"We're getting phenomenal rates of mental disorder, conduct problems, substance abuse, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder," said Les Whitbeck, the sociology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who is leading the study. "This is a group of overlooked kids that is hard to treat and hard to engage."

Results from the first year of his study show that 54% of male runaways and 34% of females have conduct disorder, compared to about 10% of the general teenage population. Also, 23% of males and 43% of females showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although many studies have interviewed the homeless, few have tracked them over time, Whitbeck said.

The plights of the homeless and runaways are among the agenda items at this month's White House conference at George Washington University on missing, exploited and runaway children. Child advocates say the national numbers should startle everyone.

One in seven children will run away by age 18, according to a federal survey. Each day, 1.3 million runaway and homeless youths live on America's streets. Five thousand die each year from assault, illness and suicide. Technically runaways, many are more often referred to by advocates and outreach workers as "throwaways" because they were forced out of their homes and, in far too many cases, no one is anticipating their return.

Once on the street, many youths quickly feel the terror of being alone. Adult shelters and feeding programs are frequented by sometimes menacing characters. At the National Runaway Switchboard, based in Chicago, experts say most youths who call have been on the street less than three days.

"They get out on the streets and they get scared," said executive director Maureen Blaha, whose group gets as many as 400 calls each day. "These are very vulnerable youth who become victims. And to survive, they are often perpetrators of crime. They steal to survive or turn to prostitution to get a warm shower. But they're still kids." Kids, she said, who made a choice that anything was better than the life they had at home.

"The kids that are running are running from something," Blaha said. "It's not this Tom Sawyer / Huck Finn adventure."

*

Caring is rare when it comes to public officials and policies aimed at the homeless, said R. Dean Wright, a professor at Drake University, who has studied and written extensively about the homeless. Throughout the country, he said, locales are essentially "criminalizing" being without a home by making it illegal to sleep in a public park or hang around in public places downtown.

"We don't have a culture that has encouraged the visibility of homelessness," Wright said. "We've got a lot of denial because we have people who argue that a person living in a shelter is not homeless because they have a roof over their head. The philosophy is ignore them and they will go away."

Surely some people have that attitude, but public officials are trying to address the problem, said Lyle Schwery, Des Moines' homeless assistance coordinator for the last decade. He administers about $2 million in state and federal grants the city gets to assist private groups with the problem.

During the last city census of the homeless in January, Schwery said some 3,700 homeless people were counted, about half of them children either alone or accompanied by parents. It's among these two groups that the bed shortage is most severe.

"There is never enough money," he said. "We probably have $50 to $60 worth of requests for every dollar we have to allocate."

Although more money is needed, it is not the only solution, Schwery said, noting that no community is immune from the issues that lead to homelessness.

"Des Moines may appear to be different," he said. "We have this wholesome down-home persona, and it is a wholesome, friendly place. But we are not exempt from the problems that cause homelessness. We have substance abuse. We have domestic violence. We have a shortage of affordable housing.... You can't look at homelessness like a monolith. Every homeless person has their own story, their own little barriers they have to overcome to get back to a stable home."

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