<< Getting off the streets

Print This Post

L.A. youth talked to Lon Usher, who has worked at Covenant House for 21 years. She talked with us about the shelter’s programs and what challenges teens face to stay off the streets.

How do teens become homeless?
Some have been in foster care and when they turn 18, they’re kicked out of the system with no skills. That’s a big percentage. Some are verbally and physically abused—that includes sexual abuse—at home and they can’t take it anymore. Some come to California from other states because they see the glitz and glamour and they want to be stars.

Why is it so common for teens who’ve been in the foster care and probation systems to become homeless?
We as a society have failed them. We haven’t prepared them for what to expect when they turn 18. It’s wrong of us to expect a kid to turn 18 with no skills and open the door and say you’ve got to go. That’s cruel.

How many youth are at Covenant House?
We have 104 residents. They’re working toward going back out into society. You’re allowed to stay as long as you’re improving your quality of life.

What kinds of services does Covenant House provide?
We have a medical clinic with doctors and nurse practitioners. There are groups to empower the youth to express themselves, like an intimate partner abuse group for all kinds of relationships. Men’s group talks about issues that affect men, women’s group talks about issues that affect women, music therapy talks about how music plays a role in our lives.

We not only provide them with tutoring, we pay for them to take the GED [high school equivalency exam]. It costs $125. We have tutors five days a week. We also have a lot of high school graduates. Our education specialists help them fill out financial aid for college. And we give them some school supplies—a backpack, pencils, paper—the basics.

The basic requirement is [they have to be doing] school or work. We do everything we can to get them back on track. We don’t kick them out unless they’re fighting or using drugs.

How long do most stay here?
It takes two and a half to three years to go through the entire program. The Crisis program has the most people. [They share dorm-like rooms with other youth.] We work on a case plan that includes education, employment, self-determination and housing goals. And we get target dates. Think of Crisis as a person going into the military, you get that basic training and then you’re ready for the next training in life.

Then ROP [Rights of Passage] lasts nine months to a year. There are no curfews or chores like in Crisis, and more perks. They’re still working with their case managers.

In SAP [Supportive Apartments Program] they’re on their way. They live in apartments off-site. I go to the apartment and teach them how to cook on a budget, how to shop on a budget, how to clean, how to call the landlord if something needs to be repaired. Thirty percent of their income goes to rent. Rent is about $250 a month. They get it back [when they leave]. They’re working at [places like] McDonald’s and Abercrombie & Fitch. In the real world you have to pay rent. A lot of them don’t know you usually have to pay first and last month’s rent or a deposit. A lot of them don’t know that and they’re surprised. We’re still teaching them skills.

Where do they go once they leave?
A lot of them, after they leave, come back for advice. We stay in contact with kids who are now 39 or 40. They use our services. We’ve been that very important support system that they’ve been missing in their lives.

Luis and Lace both said they were on a waiting list to get in. Is that common? Where do teens go while they wait for a bed at Covenant House?
We are always full. We have to establish a wait list. We work to get them into someplace else, another shelter, a hotel voucher. Our goal is to get them off the street. We have beds just for emergency overnight clients. They sleep here and eat breakfast here

How likely is it that they’ll be homeless again?
A small percentage do. But they’ve been there, they’ve done that. They know what that life is like and they don’t want to do it again.

Not all of them make it through the program. They may work out some differences and return home or stay with other relatives. Some may go to college and apply for college dorms. It depends on the client.

What are the biggest challenges for youth when they leave Covenant House?
A lot of them think we’re going to neglect them. The fear of not having a support system when they leave us. I think they do a fantastic job of making it on their own when they leave us.


Where to turn

If you’re a runaway or homeless youth there are shelters you can go to. Be safe by staying off the streets. All numbers operate 24 hours a day.

Covenant House
1325 N. Western Ave. in Hollywood (800) 999-9999
For youth 18-21.

Los Angeles Youth Network
(323) 957-7757
For youth 12-17.

Angel’s Flight
357 S. Westlake Ave. (800) 833-2499
For youth 10-17.

California Youth Crisis Hotline
(800) 843-5200