Helping homeless youth succeed: what it takes, and where the state fits in

Alonn Adams celebrates finishing school. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

More than once in her life, 18-year-old Alonn Adams didn’t think she would graduate high school.

Since she was 9, she lived in 26 foster homes in Southern Nevada and transferred to more than a dozen schools, which made getting passing grades difficult and the overall pathway to success littered with obstacles.

“My freshman year of high school was the worst year ever because I had changed high schools four times,” she said. “There are times I wanted to give up. I had this overbearing feeling I wasn’t ever going to graduate high school.”

Adams left her final foster home in March and landed in a bed at Shannon West Homeless Youth Center, operated by HELP of Southern Nevada.

Three months later, she is one of three youths from the shelter who celebrated their high school graduation Saturday, something she said wouldn’t have been possible without a stable place to live.

“School takes a toll on you when you don’t know where you’re sleeping that night,” she said. “Being here allowed me just to focus on school.”

Adams’ story is similar to other homeless youth.

“They come to us with all sorts of deficits whether it’s educational or emotional,” said Fuilala Riley, the CEO of HELP of Southern Nevada. “Some come with substance abuse and mental issues. Some come with all of the above.”

Kelly Robson, the Chief Social Services Officer at the HELP of Southern Nevada, said every youth is a unique puzzle. “Some come with 10 pieces while others come in 50 pieces,” she said. “Piece by piece, you put them back together until they are whole enough to go back into society and live productive lives.”

But there is a limited window of opportunity. National studies, Riley said, show if homeless youth get on their feet before they turn 25, the possibility of them becoming homeless adults, which comes with a separate set of obstacles, is greatly diminished.

“They have a shot of a productive, normal adulthood ahead of them,” Riley said. “It’s not a shot in the dark, but a real possibility. But we have to connect them now. We have to get them connected. We have to remove any barriers to their self sufficiency.”

The National Center for Homeless Education estimates about 16,800 students in Nevada public schools identified as homeless in 2018. The number includes any student with an irregular or inadequate nighttime residence such as those who have lost housing, are forced to double up with friends or relatives, those living in extended-stay motels, as well as people on the streets or in their cars.

Of the total number of homeless youth, 1,295 are unaccompanied according to the Nevada Homeless Alliance.

The majority don’t have access to shelter. In fact, Nevada has the highest rate of unsheltered homeless youth in the nation, with about 84 percent who lack safe and stable accommodations according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report.

Shannon West Homeless Youth Center and the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth have been providing housing and case management.

Riley said HELP has struggled to secure additional funding to offer more beds, case management and educational guidance to homeless youth. There are about 90 beds currently available at Shannon West.

At the beginning of June, 18 youths showed up at the shelter, which was at capacity, and stayed in overflow beds in common areas such as the television rooms.

“If a kid shows up at 2 a.m. needing a place to sleep, we will let them come in and crash on our couches,” Riley said.

They just don’t have access to a designated bed or designated, consistent case management and educational resources. “There is a difference between putting everything you own in a backpack and walking out and being able to leave your stuff here,” she added.

Clark County commissioners voted in May to direct $1.8 million of marijuana fees to homeless services. The county will direct $855,000 specifically to Shannon West Homeless Youth Center to expand so it can expand to 166 beds. “We will be able to reach more youth,” Riley said. 

But it’s not just a lack of space that plagues youth. Many systemic barriers block their path to finishing school or even obtaining identification, all important factors when helping them exit homelessness.

Lawmakers recently passed legislation to help students overcome some of those barriers.

On Friday, Gov. Steve Sisolak tearfully signed Assembly Bill 363, which was sponsored by the late Democratic Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson. The legislation waives DMV fees to allow homeless youth to get drivers licenses — a key not only to mobility, but also crucial as youth try to gain employment, apply for housing or seek other social services.

“Instead of service providers having to pay for them to get (identification), we can use that money toward something else,” Riley said.

Senate Bill 147, which also was passed and signed into law, helps homeless and foster youth get partial or full credit for coursework regardless of attendance to aid them on the path toward graduation.

While Saturday celebrated three graduates, Robson said 22 youth from the shelter have graduated high school in the past year, just not on time, which is mostly because of attendance requirements.

“If we can just focus on their academic achievement ,” Robson said. ““It’s amazing that some of them were still there in class and had a B. Let’s reward them for that and not penalize them for not having a stable home environment.”

Additionally, lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 133, which expands the definition of runaway and homeless youth as well as a county’s role in providing support. Supporters said the legislation will allow the state to be more eligible for federal funding specifically for homeless youth.

Advocates working with youth population agree that passing legislation and allocating money for the shelter are important, actions.

However, the next step for properly addressing youth homelessness is similar to addressing homelessness altogether — housing, housing, housing.

“We need more affordable housing,” Robson said. Also, she added there needs to be better policies that deal with barriers to accessing affordable units.

Shannon West also has single occupancy units for youth ready to take the next step. “They pay 30 percent of their income, have light case management and learn basic things like how to be a tenant, what to look for in a lease and how to budget,” Robson said.

However, whenever youth are ready to leave the program, they often can’t find housing. “They make money to afford rent but don’t make two and a half times their income to even qualify for a unit,” Robson added. “They can’t even qualify for units. We really need to get those rules around the qualifications to get into units to change. Then we just need to develop more affordable housing.”

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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