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Homeless Youth Face Unique Challenges

[Photo: Kenneth Wilson wants to tell other homeless youth, Don't give up. He wants to help them improve their lives. By Taisha Henry.]

August 7, 2014 | WMFE, Orlando - You would never guess they're living on the street or in shelters.

Yet more than 7,000 of Central Florida's youth are homeless.

Kenneth Wilson is a 20-year-old young man who currently attends Full Sail University. Kenneth is about 5 feet 9 inches, well-dressed in a fitted polo and jeans. He seems like your ordinary college kid. You would never guess that he lives in a homeless shelter.

“You know, it was my freshman year of college, and you don't sit here and think, I'm excited I got into a homeless shelter my freshman year of college.”

When Kenneth was 18 he moved to Orlando from the midwest for college. At first he stayed in a motel, but he struggled to find a permanent place to live. After a few weeks his money ran out, and he was homeless. Since then Kenneth has found shelter. He’s moved forward and accepted his situation, but being homeless took its toll.

“Me having to be silent was like shooting a needle through my arm and just saying, Don't make any noise. It was really painful not being able to be who you are. I feel like it was a part of me that shut down saying, O.K., don't say anything,” says Wilson.

Kenneth’s story isn’t unusual. He’s one of thousands of homeless kids in Central Florida.

Covenant House-Orlando is a non-profit organization that provides shelter and various outreach programs to kids like Kenneth. Maria Shorkey, Covenant House Director of Development, says it’s common for kids to hide their home life.

“Homeless kids are like any other youth in the community. They want to blend in. They don’t want to stick out. So they do a great job at staying clean and being able to hide with other kids their age. They don’t step forward and say, Hey, count me I’m homeless.”

Covenant House also conducts outreach programs in St. Cloud. Covenant house GED instructor Greg Johnson explained some of the challenges facing homeless youth in St. Cloud. They include access to services - there’s only one bus line - which is why Covenant House goes to them.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is breaking the family cycle. Johnson says he recently had a mother and daughter graduate from his program together.

“It’s a traditional thing. It’s something they have to look at and change. The youth of today have to look back and say they can’t be like their parents, and that’s why they’re deciding to go back to school,” says Johnson.

The other challenge for nonprofits working to help Central Florida’s homeless and at-risk youth is funding.

Last year it cost Covenant House $2.5 million. Covenant House works with the Orange County Public School Homeless Liaisons, the Department of Children and Families and other non-profits.

Funding comes through grants and residents in the community. Yet, it still isn’t enough. Currently the shelter houses 43 kids. There’s three acres in the back of the facility where Maria Shorkey says they could build a bigger facility - if they had the resources.

Shorkey believes that as a society we shouldn’t be so quick to write off troubled youth but instead lend a helping hand.

 “As a community and a society we have to make a choice whether we want to invest in these kids and try to help them or we want to say, Oh the problem doesn't exist. Let me just look the other way.”

For 19-year-old Quincy White, one of the G-E-D students in St. Cloud, youth like him just need some support and guidance.

White was been in the foster care system since he was 10 years old. He started doing drugs in ninth grade and eventually dropped out of school. Now he’s getting his life back on track.

“There’s a lot of judgmental people. A lot of people judge people, and I feel like homeless youth and youth period should not get judged for anything because they’re just trying to find their way in the world,” says White.

Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.