Homelessness is new reality for thousands of Kansas City area teens

Advocates in Kansas City are asking the community to look for the hidden homeless among us.

The most recent Point In Time count, conducted in January of each year, shows thousands of homeless teenagers in the five-county metro.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, they didn’t make a decision that led them to homelessness. There was something going on in the home,” Cynthia Hoffman said.

Hoffman works for Synergy Services, one of only two shelters that have programs for teens in the city.

"They’re a vulnerable population," she said.

Estimates from counts like Point in Time, which is a federal Housing and Urban Development program, and from the school districts show there are approximately 6,000 13- to 24-year-olds in need.

“If we had anywhere approaching that number – a tenth of that number – with measles, we would call it an epidemic,” President and CEO of ReStart Evie Craig said.

Alleviating teen homelessness is a complex issue.

Although there are counts and some measurement available, that 6,000 number could be higher. That’s because the HUD Point In Time count does not include teens who are living on couches.

Craig said the terms “couch surfing” and “doubling up” are often used together and they can be dangerous for teenagers.

Within the first 48 hours of a teenager being on the streets, they could come in contact with a predator leaving them open to sex trafficking.

“So they get out of the unsafe situation and they find themselves, you know, couch surfing,” Hoffman said.

Advocates say that couch surfing isn’t just a sleepover. It is rare that teens stay somewhere without any reciprocation.

Craig has heard firsthand what teenagers have done to keep a roof over their head. Those exchanges can range from drugs to “it could, quite frankly, be sexual favors.”

Even though both ReStart and Synergy Services have programs that have been proven to work when they are able to reach teenagers in need, there aren’t enough beds.

In 2017, nearly 1,000 teens were turned away from both shelters because there wasn’t enough space.

Craig said that was only from the number of teens who called. She knows there are more teens and young people in need who didn’t reach out.

“There are responses to it. There are solutions to it and we are just maximizing those responses,” she said.

And, of the thousands of teenagers in need, LGBTQ teens can be in even more danger.

One nationwide study, conducted by the Modern Slavery Research Project, shows nearly one in four homeless LGBTQ teens said they had been trafficked.

In Kansas City, 50 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.

ReStart, located downtown, and Synergy Services, off Parvin Road, specialize in helping this often-marginalized group.

These shelters do not require teenagers to conform to traditional gender norms. At Synergy, there are gender-neutral bathrooms and they immediately ask teens which pronouns they prefer to use.

Hoffman knows there are some shelters in the metro that have restrictions on members of the LGBTQ community; sometimes asking LGBTQ teens to go by their birth gender and adhere to clothing restrictions if they want a bed.

“A lot of times, they choose to stay on the street because they don’t want to have to deny their identity to have a bed to stay,” Hoffman said about quick decisions teens have to make when they become homeless. “It’s really difficult when the two options are couch surfing or staying in a shelter where you don’ get to be who you are.”

At Synergy, Hoffman and her Street Outreach team keep in touch with teenagers daily no matter if they are in a shelter or not.

But keeping teens off couches and teaching them how to be independent is the goal of these two shelters.

“I think Kansas City is a welcoming community. I think we really try to take care of our own,” Hoffman said.

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