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Thousands of Homeless Teens Now Have Somewhere to Celebrate the Holidays

Despite our broken and underfunded child welfare system, community groups like Covenant House are providing much needed support at an emotional time.

Jim Kelly

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This is an opinion piece by Jim Kelly, Executive Director of Covenant House New Orleans. This is part of an going series in support of the release of the new VICE Documentary Films documentary Shelter and part of VICE Impact's commitment to addressing teen homelessness.

Sarah’s mother abused her from the age of three to the age of seven. The abuse was so bad that she was removed from her home and placed with her aunt. When she was ten years old, her aunt died of cancer. Sarah was forced to move back in with her mother — a mentally ill, drug-addicted, child abuser.

Her mother didn’t really want Sarah, her own daughter! But, she took her back for one reason and one reason only: Sarah came with a check.

Sarah endured her mother’s abuse and beatings that once again continued for years. Her mother’s boyfriend and friends even joined in. Sarah was sexually assaulted and raped. Finally, unable to endure the pain any longer, Sarah ran away to Covenant House.

Sarah arrived at our front door shell shocked, afraid to open her mouth and in a dark depression. Our team knows that cases like Sarah’s take time. To build the critical trust, you have to start slow. Sarah has been receiving lots of counseling from our dedicated group of professionals and lots of love from everybody. The healing has begun.

Our broken – and underfunded - child welfare system has not protected them – nor helped them to heal – nor helped them to begin anew.

To help Sarah find a new path, we enrolled her in an excellent job training program. She recently finished her classes, training, and internship and is now looking forward to graduation. Next month she’ll move into our transitional living program. Staff say she is one of the kindest, sweetest girls in the Crisis Center. Sarah especially loves helping our young mothers. Their children are always excited to see her.


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Over the past two months we, as a country, have witnessed strong women (and men) stand up and proclaim they are no longer going to be silent to the pain and anguish caused by their recent or past experiences of sexual harassment and assault. “These silence breakers” some famous, most unknown, were recently named Person(s) of the Year by Time Magazine. To relive their past traumas that have haunted them for years has taken tremendous courage.

Surely, opening these wounds has brought back feelings of embarrassment, loss, abandonment, humiliation, guilt, anger, inadequacy, denial…and all the stages that come with grief.

Sadly, at Covenant House, we work with over a hundred young people a day who have been abused, assaulted or raped. Far too many of our kids were sexually abused as young children, and all too often by parents and relatives. We, as a society, have continually failed them by not removing them immediately. Our broken – and underfunded - child welfare system has not protected them – nor helped them to heal – nor helped them to begin anew. And the day they turn 18 in Louisiana, our foster care system shows them the door.

The years of abuse and violence take a toll on our young people, often causing mental and physical disabilities. 85 percent suffer from PTSD or profound trauma. They often turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate the pain, similar I am sure to many of today’s sexual harassment and assault victims/survivors.

Alone, on their own, on the streets, with no place to sleep or eat, they turn to petty crime, dealing drugs, sleeping with someone in order to have a roof over their head. Twenty-five percent of our young people end up victims of human trafficking and/or sexual labor. Our kids deeply understand sexual harassment and sexual assault, but they will never end up on the cover of Time Magazine.

They are modern day orphans left to fend for themselves. Many of their futures are filled with stints in jail or prison, stays in mental health hospitals, and far too many nights in adult homeless shelters. They are not the kind of places where true healing takes place.

Alone, on their own, on the streets, with no place to sleep or eat, they turn to petty crime, dealing drugs, sleeping with someone in order to have a roof over their head.

Sarah will celebrate Christmas with her Covenant House family this year. She now has plenty of “aunts and uncles” telling her how proud they are of her. In addition to our kids, a large percentage of our amazing – and very understanding -- staff have been victims of sexual abuse and assault.

Under the tree on Christmas morning, “thanks to the goodness of strangers”, Sarah will find an extra-large gift bag filled with a new winter coat, hat and scarf, plenty of underwear and socks, and everything else that a teenage girl needs and deserves.

Our kids are good, and beautiful, and brave.

Peace.

Combat youth homelessness by donating to Covenant House.