One of the hardest parts of homelessness is admitting that you have nowhere to go. In the beginning, there’s always another friend to plead with, another couch to sink into, another number to call. But eventually, as weeks give way to months, that fiction yields to reality.
For Kory Molina, an emotive and garrulous 20-year-old who fled Honduras four years ago, that moment came in April 2013. She had just spent several weeks on a couch at a friend’s Colmar Manor, Md., house. It was her fourth couch in six months. And her friend’s mom was now telling her the house was too crowded — she had to be out by Saturday.
“I would never walk into a shelter,” Molina said she thought, quickly ruling that out as a possibility. “I would rather sleep under a chair than go to a shelter.”
Instead, Molina arrived at a place she had heard about in Columbia Heights, perched near the corner of 15th and Irving streets NW. It reaches out to young homeless people like Molina, but it doesn’t shelter them. Instead, the Latin American Youth Center’s Street Outreach Program offers them a place to hang out with friends, do laundry, take a shower, get something to eat — and ask for help. It’s informal. It’s casual. It’s called a drop-in center.
Nationally, the facilities, which have been largely underfunded for decades, are receiving renewed attention because of fresh research suggesting that they’re the best way to bring homeless youths into the social service system. The Latin American Youth Center program will extend its hours, thanks to more funding from the city. The District has also funded another drop-in center managed by Sasha Bruce Youthwork, which opened last month in Southeast Washington. Covenant House also operates a drop-in center.
The model hinges on an informal atmosphere, especially attractive to a homeless subgroup considered among the most elusive. That’s primarily because homelessness is embarrassing for peer-conscious kids.
Teachers can go months before realizing a student, gliding from couch to park bench and back again, has nowhere to go. Youths rarely use shelters that serve adults, saying they’re scared to sleep beside a population so much older than they. So they remain hidden, sometimes not even aware they qualify as homeless.
No one knows how many homeless youths there are. National estimates range from 500,000 to 2 million. In the Washington region, the most recent annual point-in-time count of the region’s homeless population, in January 2015, said only 16 homeless kids were living without a parent. Months later, the District did another count, this one focused exclusively on the subgroup, and found 330 homeless youths — a figure some advocates say underrepresents their true number.
The low estimates have meant many cities, including the District, haven’t historically allocated the resources to address their needs. In Washington, the facilities that have targeted homeless youths have mostly focused on sheltering them instead of offering casual facilities where they can find food, nap and receive counseling.
“The feeling was that we really wanted to provide shelter for young people,” said Deborah Shore, executive director of Sasha Bruce. “. . . We now know that we’re not reaching all of the young people that we need to, and the services we have can shelter and support — but drop-in centers do other things.”
For example: increasing the chances that homeless youths will show up and get help. That’s the main lesson Natasha Slesnick learned when doing what she calls the first study to determine whether drop-in centers attract more homeless youths than shelters. Slesnick, an Ohio State University professor of human development, had worked with kids for years. But she remembers the moment she realized that some kids were scared of shelters and difficult to retain in the system.
“There was a kid who looked different,” Slesnick said, recalling one person she met at a crisis shelter. “She had a dog collar and her hair was spiked, and she was rough around the edges and her story involved abuse and substance abuse. Then I went back the next day, and she wasn’t there.” They had lost her to the streets.
Slesnick, who later founded a drop-in center, began to suspect that shelters were not the best way to disarm skittish youths — so she set out to test the hypothesis. She and other researchers located 79 homeless people between the ages of 14 and 24. Researchers encouraged half of them to visit a crisis shelter — and the other half to go to a drop-in center. Over the following months, 18 percent of the first group appeared at the shelter. Eighty percent of the second group showed up at the drop-in center, according to the study’s findings, which were published in late January.
“They have one foot in the grave,” Slesnick said. “The leading cause of death for boys is suicide, and it’s overdose for the girls. There are so many out there who are not being engaged in the system . . . that we need to do something differently. And drop-in centers aren’t the complete answer, but it’s a first step.” She found, however, that few cities have such centers.
Molina found herself at the Latin American Youth Center in spring 2013. She remembers feeling shame and fear as she climbed the steps. She still couldn’t believe she was homeless. She had grown up comfortably enough as the youngest of five siblings in the Honduran town of Copan, near a smattering of Mayan ruins. But as gang violence surged and drug trafficking soared, tourism plummeted and small businesses were hit hard. The three shops belonging to her family closed. Her parents told her that Honduras no longer had opportunity for her — and sent her to live with her sister in the United States.
She arrived at age 16 unable to speak English and on a tourism visa that soon expired, moving in with a sister and her husband, neither of whom she had seen in years. What happened next is familiar to anyone who works with homeless teens. Molina was no longer the young child her sister remembered. Drama ensued. Molina took off.
She spent more than seven months crashing at friends’ places before she arrived at the Street Outreach Program in Columbia Heights. There were people there who were her age and understood what she was going through. She kept coming back.
“It felt like, ‘Okay, maybe I can do this,’ ” she said. “ ‘Maybe I can trust someone here and talk to someone about my story.’ ”
The drop-in center told Molina about DC Doors, which helps immigrant families find housing, and she eventually landed in a Shaw studio apartment. Molina, who graduated from Coolidge Senior High School, wishes she had learned about the drop-in center sooner. She now works part-time at the center and at a cafe near Eastern Market.
For a young woman who didn’t want to concede she was homeless — who was scared of shelters and terrified of paperwork seeking information she didn’t have — it was the only thing she said could have reached her.
“As an immigrant female, I was very vulnerable,” she said. “. . . But this was a place where you could come and talk and get help.”