Young and hurting: 18- to 21-year-olds with nowhere to go

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 30, 2012

What if there’s nowhere for the boomerang to return?

As middle-class America hand-wrings over recent statistics that show nearly a third of the nation’s 25- to 34-year-olds have returned home to live with their parents — the boomerang generation — it’s easy to forget the sub-crisis within.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

For the kids from broken or dysfunctional homes, there’s no place to land when the horrible job market and housing prices spark a 20-something crisis.

“There’s places for people with kids. They can get subsidized housing. . . . And there’s a shelter if you don’t have a job or you’re homeless,” said Tiajuana Debrew, 20, who was making minimum wage at Safeway before she lost her job. “But for someone like me? I’m trying. I was working, but I’m not totally down-and-out. So where do I go for help?”

She’s one of eight kids who never lived with her parents. Four of her brothers were in foster care. She lived with grandparents, aunts and friends while growing up, bouncing from home to home.

She graduated from high school, but once Debrew hit 18, her family said, “Enough.” She was an adult, so she was out. She started college but couldn’t keep up with classes, work and no place to sleep at night.

“It’s the myth of 18,” said Daniel Brannen, executive director of Covenant House Washington, which focuses on housing and helping this group of young adults. “It’s been a myth in America for a long time that when you hit 18, you’re on your own, you’re an adult, you can make it.”

Few apartments in the Washington area will rent to a 19-year-old who is making minimum wage bagging groceries. (And given that the average, one-bedroom apartment in D.C. rents for about $1,300, who can afford to even think about it?)

But the alternative — a homeless shelter — is harrowing for young adults.

“If you’re 18 to 25? You’ll get eaten alive at a shelter,” Brannen said.

The truth is, without stable, connected adults to help, it’s difficult for anyone to make it today.

Covenant House has been the safety net for these young adults. In the past few decades, the homeless youth shelter has focused on this age group, the kids who are trying to launch without family support. That help is more crucial than ever in a world of unemployment and social-service cuts.

Debrew landed at the crisis center a few weeks ago, after she dropped out of college, lost her job and remembered the night she wandered around until 4 a.m., wondering where she could sleep.

She wants to be a pharmacy assistant. “I wish I had a place to stay while going to school. Some people are all mad that they’ve gotta live with their parents,” she said. “Some people don’t know how lucky they are.”

Covenant House is releasing a report this week on that state of homeless young adults who are 18 to 21 and who come to them for help. Most are from D.C., but some come from Maryland and Virginia.

The majority were unemployed and already parents, according to the report. About a third had been diagnosed with a mental disorder. More than half — 53 percent — said they had been physically and/or sexually abused.

Homelessness is often confused with “houselessness,” Brannen said. The kids are often sleeping on friends’ couches or in relatives’ homes for a couple of weeks at a time, then are kicked out. Not the kind of “homeless” you think.

“Yes, I am a homeless person with an iPhone. I am a homeless person with a job,” said Giselle Berbodad, 19.

Two months ago, she had nowhere to go with her 8-month-old son. She arrived at the Covenant House crisis center with the baby, looking for a place to get her life together.

“I had a business entrepreneur scholarship at [Prince George’s Community College]. But I lost that when my GPA dropped,” she says, whipping out the iPhone to show me a picture of a fat, smiling baby. “It was when I had him.”

Berbodad is an ebullient, perky young woman. Even as she explains why she couldn’t return to her aunt’s home with her child.

“I was physically abused. I was hit with whips, with a machete, with cords,” she shows me, grabbing one of the electrical cords in the boardroom where we’re speaking.

“I need better for my child. He is going to get better than I got. It’s what’s keeping me going,” she explained.

She has a job, working as a hostess at the Hamilton, a trendy restaurant on 14th Street NW.

“And it pays good! I get $10 an hour,” she says, without a hint of bitterness about how impossible it is to live on $10 an hour. With a child.

She and Debrew can’t turn to a parent for help. They are boomerangs with nowhere to land.

Follow me on Twitter, @petulad.

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