Homeless 101

Santa Fe Reporter | September 23, 2004

*Editor’s note: The names of homeless teenagers in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

The sky deepens from a membrane blue to nearly navy, causing middle-aged businessmen and amorous couples to desert the Plaza and the hodgepodge of young people who remain. Among the youths is Nicolas Nava*. While the music of LA hip-hoppers The Pharcyde blares from the kind of boom box Radio Raheem toted in Do the Right Thing, Nava dares the final white-haired couple making their escape from the Plaza to bid him hello. After the couple recoils and chokes out a greeting, Nava dares the teens in the area to coax him into a back flip. The teens largely ignore him but that doesn’t stop Nava from doing one, then two back flips—quite the feat considering Nava’s repeated declarations that he’s “so stoned.”

Wearing black from head-to-foot and matching ribbed, silver loops—one in his ear, another in his brow—Nava is tall and fluid with doe eyes, pouty lips and faultless chestnut skin, a product of his African American and Hispanic heritage. The androgynous looks, the beatnik black, the spirited tumbling, collectively belie the underlying fact that Nava—a Capital High School junior—has spent chunks of his life in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention centers here in New Mexico as well as in California and states in-between. Disenchanted with authority, Nava now lives without guardians, spending most nights at a friend’s house and others at his 19-year-old girlfriend’s.

Nava represents a growing segment of today’s youth population. They are the product of shifting family dynamics, poverty and the foster care and juvenile justice systems. They no longer live with their parents. Instead, they live with friends or relatives, in shelters or other transitional living centers. Under federal guidelines, they are homeless. Every day in Santa Fe, 40 to 50 homeless youth visit the Street Outreach center for showers, food and socializing.

During the day, they go to school.

In the past, their lack of a traditional home wasn’t necessarily recognized by the school district. But recent changes in federal law have changed all that. By some estimates, the number of homeless schoolchildren in Santa Fe increased threefold over the past two years. As a result, the school year recently began with a new emphasis on providing services to these students. It’s also creating a new way of thinking about homelessness.

Hank Hughes is the executive director of the New Mexico Coalition for Homelessness. He is a slim man with one aqua eye that seems glacial and another that darts frantically. When he talks about the days he headed St. Elizabeth’s Shelter, the eye that darts becomes even more frantic. “Ten years ago, I went to the schools and was told, ‘We don’t have any homeless children.’ When all these grants came out and the schools started talking to their children, they realized they did have homeless children.”

The McKinney-Vento Act—established in 1987—is a federal law that helps define homelessness. But its reauthorization in 2002 under the No Child Left Behind Act changed the way schools think about homeless youth.

Now, school officials can use specific guidelines to identify students as homeless. Some of these guidelines challenge conventional notions of vagrancy. Individuals typically thought of as homeless, such as those living in cars, abandoned buildings and public places, are recognized as such by McKinney-Vento. Additionally, those who share housing due to financial necessity as well as those living in motels, hotels or trailers are also considered homeless. After implementing McKinney-Vento guidelines, Santa Fe schools identified more than 300 homeless students in the 2003-2004 school year, triple the amount they identified the preceding year.

“In the past, when we’ve heard about someone moving from house to house, we didn’t think of that as homelessness,” says Louis Levin, a counselor at Salazar and Sweeney elementary schools. “It didn’t register that these folks really don’t have a place to live. We didn’t make that connection.”

In light of the new findings on homelessness, this school year the district has expanded existing services for homeless youth, launched a homeless task force and created a full-time homeless support coordinator position.

But even some of the students themselves find the homeless label too puzzling to wear.

“It’s kind of strange that they put me under the category of homeless because I’m know I’m not.” There’s no antagonism in Adriana Driver’s voice as she utters these words. She says them in as even a tone as she uses to describe her pregnancy at “14-and-a-half” and subsequent departure from her parent’s home. Now a 16-year-old mother, Driver is considered homeless at school because, after the birth of her 13-month-old son, she left her family’s Española home to live with the father of her child and his mother. As a result, she’s eligible for school supplies, toiletries, clothes and more from the district’s Homeless Task Force. Driver believes she’s been classified homeless by the school so that she’ll be eligible for these supplies. But she doesn’t consider herself homeless because she’s not transient.

Kathleen Gerson, a New York University professor of sociology, agrees with Driver that the homeless label is confusing, especially when applied to teens. “Who’s homeless and who’s simply on their own?” she asks. “You wouldn’t call a 20-year-old homeless if they were living with friends and on their own.”

Driver has been “on her own” now for nine months. On a recent day off from school, she and her son sit on the patio of her 19-year-old boyfriend’s house. Four bundles of chile hang behind her, each just a shade lighter than her peroxide red hair, pulled haphazardly into a ponytail. Clad in baggy jeans, tennis shoes and a loose tan shirt—and her child in only a diaper—Driver describes what influenced her to leave home. “I have two older brothers and an older sister, too. My parents can’t help me out a lot,” she says. In a voice that remains steadily unflappable, Driver adds that the fact that one of her brothers recently got his girlfriend pregnant and another has been in and out of prison has thinned out her family’s already threadbare resources. According to Driver, her mother was a teenager when she gave birth to her oldest children. Driver’s older sister wanted to live with her grandmother in Denver “because she had a closer relationship with her” and Driver’s mother sends her money.

Pamela J Smock, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, says that the types of circumstances Driver’s family have experienced are precisely the sort that cause children to leave home.

“What’s been happening to families is that they go through many more transitions than they used to,” says Smock, also a research scientist at the Institute for Social Research. “Stability is important to adolescents and children, and the more instability, the worse it is for children and adolescents. If they can get away from [instability] by moving in with someone else, they do.”

Though Driver’s mother asked her to reconsider leaving home, she left anyway because her mother couldn’t provide her with basics, such as transportation from Española to Santa Fe High School. Also, “I thought, ‘My boyfriend lives here, my school is here, my friends live here, I should, too,’” Driver says.

Since moving out, Driver doesn’t see her family frequently. “My mother doesn’t like to travel,” she says. “I do miss [my family]. If I lived with them, I would get more help with the baby because, even though I live with my boyfriend’s mom, she doesn’t help out too much.”

Capital High School junior Dennis Houston never felt close to his mother. “Me and my mom asked if my aunt would take legal custody of me because I never got along with my mom,” he says. “I always argued with her.”

Because his aunt was willing to take him in, Houston didn’t have to run away. But a few weeks ago, he and his aunt got into a fight and consequently, Houston had to leave. Since the eviction from his aunt’s house, Houston has lived in La Otra Puerta, the emergency housing component of Youth Shelters and Family Services.

Speech littered with “I dunnos” and one-word answers (suggesting he derives as much fulfillment from talking to adults as the characters of “Peanuts”), Houston explains that he’s unfazed by his current living situation. “I’m used to taking care of myself,” he says. “I did dishes. I just did a lot by myself.”

Accordingly, Houston believes he’s capable of living by himself. His goal is to obtain a unit in a transitional living center. But, for the moment, he chooses not to hide the fact that he’s living in a shelter from his friends. Houston has no need to, as he says he knows at least 10 other kids in similar circumstances. And when Houston told friends that his aunt kicked him out, they responded with excitement. “Right now, they’re like, ‘We should get an apartment together,’” he says.

Driver also says she’s not the only student she knows in her situation. A friend of hers is pregnant and living with her boyfriend. And Driver considers the friend to be “really homeless” because the girl’s family lives out-of-state and doesn’t support her. The fact that Driver, Houston and others profiled in this story know juveniles living on their own seems to indicate that the nation might be regressing in terms of the rearing of teenagers.

“I can certainly say if you take a long-term historical look, it was quite common for teenagers to leave home and live as boarders and apprentices and lodgers in the homes of others,” Gerson says. “Only in modern society have we had children live with their parents well into their late teens and twenties.”

Despite appearances, Smock says the country has not returned to the period when it was common for teens to live independently. “I don’t think that the ideal of having a child stay in the home until they are 18 has changed,” she says. “I think the circumstances of family have changed. People’s lives are in greater upheaval than they were 30 or 40 years ago with divorce, remarriage and non-marital child-bearing. If [parents’] lives are a little more chaotic, I don’t think they have the control or the desire to keep their children in that situation.”

Neglect is also a reason more teens are going it alone. According to Duran, 57 percent of homeless youth cite parental neglect as the impetus for their exit from home. Moreover, “We’re probably seeing more substance abuse among parents and youth fleeing from abusive situations at home,” she says. But Duran says family relations are not solely responsible for youth leaving. “It’s not only family dynamics, it’s poverty. Families are definitely more strained in terms of resources.”

Chelsea Hall teaches dance and takes classes at Santa Fe Community College.

She hopes to transfer to either the University of New Mexico or attend college in California. Once enrolled in a four-year school, Hall knows exactly what she’ll major in—dance and political science. Asked which candidate she’s voting for in the presidential election, Hall smirks and says that neither choice is to her liking but that she’ll begrudgingly vote for Kerry. Asked if friends know she was once homeless, she laughs. “It’s not like I go around and say, ‘Hi, I used to be homeless.’” But then she sobers and says that, in fact, many people know her story. Smoking a cigarette to awaken herself the morning after Zozobra, Hall sits on steps near her apartment. She has a raspy voice and prominent lips and eyes that conjure actress Scarlett Johansson. Tongue-ring sporadically flashing into view, Hall begins her narrative.

She was 13 and after a series of disagreements with the administration, her mother decided to pull her out of Alameda Middle School. It’s a place Hall, now 18, remembers as being “militaristic.”

“If I questioned what they were teaching, it turned into a battleground,” Hall explains. That she believed many of her peers didn’t want to be there made attending all the more difficult, so she didn’t object when her mother took her out. Soon after she stopped going to Alameda, her mother and stepfather took her to Mexico. When they returned, the family had no place to live, so they ended up staying in the studio of her stepfather’s boss. “He didn’t like me for some reason,” Hall says. So, she decided to leave.

Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Switchboard, says when families experience financial hardship, children are more likely to run. “The scenario of a youth living at home with his family and now that family has been displaced because of economic strain and has bunked with another family happens more frequently when the economy is in the situation that it is now,” she says. “Their living situation is very unstable and, in their mind, any place is better than home. Oftentimes, these kids…don’t feel like they belong anymore.”

After leaving home, Hall says she “couch-surfed,” lived in abandoned buildings and camped out. Though she’d briefly reconcile with her parents, Hall always ended up on her own. And school was no longer a consideration.

“I was out of school and I thought I’d never go back,” Hall says. “I had no idea about the future. I was living day by day.”

When she was 16, Hall visited Santa Fe Community College and learned she could take the GED. She passed and has taken classes at the college ever since. She now lives in the transitional living center of Youth Shelters and Family Services. Though she’s still on her own, and still homeless, according to the McKinney Vento Act, Hall says she’s now in frequent contact with her family. In particular, she says that she and her mother “are the best of friends.” This stands in stark contrast to the legions of children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

The sky now black and the Plaza filling with young congregants, Nicolas Nava has a memory of his mother that he’d rather forget. “My mom didn’t even want me,” he says. “She tried to leave me in front of a hospital.” Nava says that his father quickly retrieved him and, pondering this, Nava’s brown saucer-eyes almost twinkle. Despite his clear affection for this father, he remains a fragmented memory. For instance, Nava knows his father was Hispanic but isn’t sure if he was Cuban, Colombian, Costa Rican or of an altogether different background. His memory fails him on other matters as well. Nava thinks he was five when he was first placed in foster care and 15 when he was placed in a juvenile detention center, but he isn’t certain. Nava admits to using drugs. He has dabbled in cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana and is very fond of alcohol. While substance abuse has been shown to affect memory, Nava’s inability to recollect facts could also be due to the absence of parents with whom to exchange and, consequently, retain memories.

Now that he’s 18. Nava seems to need neither memories nor parents. Though he was adopted by an Eldorado family, he would rather live with friends. “I’m old enough to live on my own,” he says. Because of how he’s living—splitting his time at friends’ houses—Nava is homeless according to the McKinney-Vento Act. And he’s far from the only homeless youth who’s been in foster care and juvenile corrections to have no relationship with his parents. “Many of the data shows that in some samples of homeless youths, 16 percent never knew their father and nine percent never knew their mother,” Duran says.

The 1980s was arguably the start of this trend. The period saw a surge of children entering foster care due to a spike in poverty and the dominance of crack. Additionally, “By the ’80s, one out of three births were occurring outside of marriage,” Smock says. With more children entering foster care came more homeless youths. Providers of Duran’s agency, the National Network for Youth, indicate that at least 40 percent of children aging out of foster care become homeless in young adulthood. Some, like Nava, “choose” homelessness rather than remaining in foster care, and others celebrate 18th birthdays with no familial or financial support. To combat this problem, in 1999, the Foster Care Independence Act was established to help wards of the state transition into mainstream society. But Duran says the millions of funds provided by this act

are still insufficient to aid the scores of children in foster care. In New Mexico, however, the estimated 1,885 children in foster care have some additional resources.

To ease older adolescents into adult life, Children, Youth and Families has a semi-independent living center in which 212 older adolescents reside. “These are kids who can’t go back home, who can’t go to their families,” says Dorian Dodson, director for the protective services division of Children, Youth and Families. “They get support services. They get resources in order to help them become independent adults. Just as with anybody, you have to give them proper skills and teach them how to earn money.”

But Duran says similar offerings for youths exiting the juvenile justice system don’t exist. Therefore, her agency is working on legislation that would help juvenile offenders avoid homelessness by empowering them with the skills

necessary to live on their own.

Nava is currently making an autonomous effort to obtain life skills. Though he flunked the 10th grade, he now goes to school daily. In spite of confining his studying exclusively to his morning bus ride from downtown to Capital High, he is excelling academically as well. “I’m pretty good in 11th,” he says. “I get, like, B’s and A’s. I decided to do better in school.” If he can get the financial support, Nava will attend “computer school” after graduating.

On the other hand, Nava admits that he has much headway to make in addressing his drug use. He says he ignores teachers’ offers to enroll him in treatment programs and still uses substances liberally.

Discussing his drug habit, his countenance is wistful, as if parents could somehow be of use after all. This is especially the case when he recalls a recent arrest for marijuana possession. “I got arrested smoking pot at the river,” he says. “I had a half a joint and my friend was with me, too. The police called his parents to come get him and let him go. But they held me.”


Santa Fe Reporter

When it was founded in 1974, the Santa Fe Reporter's mission was to create lively competition for a stodgy and timid daily press. That tradition continues today. The Reporter investigates beneath the surface, presenting in-depth stories often overlooked or uninvestigated...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 132 E. Marcy St., Santa Fe, NM 87501
  • Phone: (505) 988-5541