The passage from childhood to adult life is fraught with everything from the acne angst, romantic ruminations, and Twitter twaddle of the comic strip Zits to the dark side of drugs, sex, and booze shown in movies and TV shows.
Some teens follow a sad and scary detour into homelessness and life on the streets, even in Columbus. They panhandle to get money for food and sleep in empty buildings, drainpipes, and abandoned cars. They may couch surf with friends or relatives. Some girls find “home” in a hotel room paid for with sex.
“Everyone is really shocked that there are homeless kids in Columbus,” said Natasha Slesnick, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science.
At least a thousand homeless teens can be found in the area on any day, Slesnick said. Nationally, estimates range from 800,000 to 2.8 million.
Often scared and depressed, about 75 percent of the teens flee homes where they were physically or sexually abused, she said. “They leave the family because of abuse, extreme poverty,” or so “their parents won’t rape them every night.”
Hardly the media image of thrill-seeking youths taking to the streets for adventure. These kids have been “lost in the cracks because we don’t have the services for them,” Slesnick said.
Invisible to most of the world, they drift in and out of shelters, soup kitchens, libraries, and parks. That is where Slesnick finds them and explains the programs available to help them get off the road leading to permanent homelessness as adults.
Her involvement with homeless kids began when she was in graduate school at the University of New Mexico, working with drug-addicted teens and their parents. Little research had been done yet to show what helped with runaways, so she applied for a grant to develop treatment.
That led to the establishment of a drop-in center in Albuquerque, “a place where kids can start building back trust and connections with adults and service providers,” Slesnick said. “This is important because for most of them, that trust has completely disappeared because of multiple betrayals and letdowns. Without trust, there’s no connection.”
Because Slesnick believes every large city needs a drop-in center, she is seeking a $1.8 million federal grant for a Columbus facility to operate for five years.
She was turned down last year but hopes for approval this fall, despite the lack of dollars available for homeless youths. That’s partly because the problem isn’t widely recognized. There is fierce competition, she said, for the few “crumbs” offered to groups working with the homeless.
Meanwhile, some homeless teens in Columbus get help at the Human Ecology House, a few blocks from the Oval. Slesnick found research grants and began using the house after she came to Ohio State five years ago.
Inside the spacious brick home, a low-key, few-rules approach prevails. Counselors are called allies, not therapists. They begin rebuilding trust by first meeting basic needs, whether it’s a frozen dinner, a shower, even diapers and baby food—a third of the teens have children.
Each day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., anywhere from eight to two dozen youths come to hang out, watch TV, and when ready, talk with Slesnick or some of the dozen graduate students who counsel at the house.
“It was love at first sight,” said one client. “It’s a house [where] you get to go in the kitchen and get what you want to eat.” He began coming daily in June.
He left home, the teen said, because of “too much drama.” Unemployed for several months, he hopes to join the National Guard but needs a birth certificate to prove identity. Counselors can help with that.
Like many homeless youths, he appears to be a street tough in baggy, low-slung pants, two caps, and a black T-shirt. An intimidating appearance can help homeless teens ward off attacks by the very element they imitate.
“The homeless are more likely to be victims of crime, not perpetrators,” Slesnick said.
Because the center conducts research, client confidentiality is protected—a plus for the wary young people who don’t want to go back to their homes.
Counselors use several approaches, including enhancing the teens’ communication, problem solving, and parenting skills. They also help them find jobs, health care, and housing.
The counselors follow up at three, six, and 12 months to see which types of intervention techniques are most effective for reducing substance abuse and helping their clients get back into the mainstream.
But how do you begin working with kids who’ve endured so much and appear so angry and intimidating
“Start with the idea that we are all more alike than we are different,” Slesnick said. “And if you can understand what it’s like to feel alone, scared, angry, and hopeless, then you can connect with a homeless kid.”
Help homeless teens: Natasha Slesnick welcomes donations of new socks, underwear, and diapers. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.