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Study of homeless teens at shelter paints a grim picture

Lisa Demer

The first big study of homeless teenagers and young adults in Anchorage paints a disturbing picture.

Nearly half of the girls who show up at the Covenant House shelter have been sexually abused. Nearly a third already have children of their own or are pregnant. Increasing numbers are coming from the Bush, and only a few rural teens had a high school diploma or equivalency.

The homeless urban kids weren't much different. Not many of those from Anchorage had finished high school either, according to the study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UAA. It was released this week.

Researchers examined 10 years' worth of data about kids seeking help at Covenant House, Alaska's only shelter for homeless teens.

"This is the bottom. We are looking at about as difficult as life can get," said lead researcher Stephanie Martin of ISER.

The work is an offshoot of a Palin administration examination of rural migration, Martin said. Covenant House representatives came to work- group meetings and said they had some interesting data about homeless teens but weren't sure what to do with it. So the study began.

Covenant House Alaska serves 13- to 20-year-olds. About 1,000 youths stayed at least a night at the shelter last budget year. Covenant House also provides counseling, medical services, family mediation, street outreach and help with education and jobs. And it offers longer-term housing for young adults and pregnant girls or new parents.

Researchers examined thousands of intake and discharge files from 1999 through 2008 and medical records from 2007 and 2008. The study was based on the experiences of youths who wanted services beyond a place to sleep for the night, or an average of 378 youths a year.

"This report quantifies the tragic stories of our kids and will help us better meet their needs," said Deirdre Cronin, executive director of Covenant House Alaska.

THE FINDINGS

The problems that lead to teens being on the streets or in the shelter are deep rooted.

Many of the kids studied faced multiple difficulties: mental illness, teen pregnancy, no job, no diploma, trouble with the law. More than a third who turned to Covenant House in 2008 came more than once.

"They have nothing. No money. No family. No resources. No job," Martin said.

Some came to the shelter after aging out of foster care or because of problems in a foster home. Others came from treatment centers or hospitals or jail. Some came there straight from home -- one-third of those age 13 to 17 had spent the previous night at their parents' home, and 40 percent had been staying with another relative or adult, the study showed.

Covenant House mediates with families as a first course of action. But, "a majority of the kids that we see, there's trouble at home," Cronin said. "There are some that are coming from great homes and making bad choices. That's a minority."

Ten years ago, almost all of the kids at Covenant House came from Anchorage or the Mat-Su, and about 7 in 10 still do. But as of 2008, nearly a third came from other areas, including the Bush and out of state.

Many moved from rural Alaska to stay with relatives, but the move didn't work out, Martin said. The kid ends up couch surfing, on the streets and eventually the shelter.

Teens are fleeing the villages for the same reasons as adults, Martin said. They are trying to find jobs or get an education, or want to escape the high cost of living in the Bush.

Most of the rural kids are Alaska Native. From 1999 to 2008, the number of Native youths at the shelter nearly doubled -- from 75 to 133. Now 4 in 10 of the teens there are Native.

'DISGUSTED WITH SYSTEM'

Overall, many of the youths have serious mental illness. Medical records show that almost 40 percent of kids at Covenant House have been in residential psychiatric treatment, the study found. And 8 in 10 last year suffered from one or more of these conditions: mental illness, substance abuse, developmental disability or traumatic brain injury, according to Covenant House.

Some of these emotionally troubled children don't have parents able to take care of them or are young adults by the time treatment ends. Or they aren't getting the help they need in the community, researchers say.

So they end up at Covenant House.

The study points to a need to rethink mental health treatment for older teens, and to gaps in services. Teens may become "disgusted with the system" and stop seeking treatment, a state health official told the researchers. They may need a different sort of treatment than children or older adults.

ROMEO'S STORY

Romeo Hammond, 18, sees himself in the statistics about homeless teens.

He figures he's been in and out of Covenant House eight times since he was 13. Once, he ran away from a foster home in Mountain View and ended up at the shelter. He went to residential treatment in Colorado and thought he could live with his mother when he finished. He couldn't. He's couch-surfed and slept in homeless camps. But he always finds his way back to Covenant House.

Now Hammond is living in a Covenant House long-term program for 18- to 20-year-olds called Rights of Passage. He's working on his GED credential. He hopes to get a fisheries job, maybe eventually in Dutch Harbor. He's a success story, Cronin said.

He says the shelter has done a lot for him. He's gotten clothes, medicine, a safe place to live, good food. The people there are nice, he said.

When the ISER study came out, he was surprised by the numbers of homeless teens who had been in foster care, who were mentally ill, who didn't have a high school diploma.

"Wow, is it really like this?" Hammond said. "I thought I was the only one going through it."

HELP FOR THE HOMELESS

Not all the findings in the study were bleak. There are fewer 13- to 17-year-olds ending up at the shelter. More 18- to 20-year-olds are finishing high school or getting a GED. But nearly three-quarters are unemployed.

Carol Comeau, Anchorage School District superintendent, said the problem of homelessness in town has focused largely on street alcoholics, not on homeless kids, even though there are far more of them. The study might help to shift that attention, she said.

The district already staffs a classroom at Covenant House property nearby and sends teachers two nights a week to tutor kids at the shelter. Two of the teens could graduate this year if they stick with their studies, said Barb Dexter of the district's Child in Transition Program.

Cronin said the study gives Covenant House direction to improve its services. Even she was surprised to learn how many kids arrived with serious mental illness. One obvious need: more specialized staff training.

"We need to constantly make sure that we are engaging the kids in a way that shows them we are happy they made the choice to walk through our front door," Cronin said.

Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

No high school diploma

66% of 18- to 20-year-olds Had been sexually abused

46% of the girls Had been in foster care

33% Already had a child or are pregnant

28% Arrested in prior three months

Source: UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research Teenage and homeless in Anchorage

Read the ISER report
More on Anchorage's homeless
By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com
Contact Lisa Demer at LDemer@adn.com or on