Without a Home: Valley youths experiencing homelessness face distinct hurdles

Jun 14, 2023, 4:35 AM

This is the third of a five-part series titled “Without a Home,” a KTAR News special report on homelessness in metro Phoenix. Here is part 1 and part 2. Tune to 92.3 FM all week for more in-depth coverage of the issue.

PHOENIX – Benjamin Johnson is an 18-year-old Valley student-athlete who graduated from high school in May.

He ran cross country and received a scholarship to attend college and compete in the sport.

“I’m the only long-distance runner with asthma,” he joked.

That’s not the only thing that sets Ben apart. He’s also had to overcome homelessness, a hurdle for hundreds of young people in metro Phoenix.

The 2023 Maricopa County point-in-time census documented 9,642 people of all ages experiencing homelessness. About 20% were 24 or younger — 722 for the 18-24 youth category and 1,133 for children under 18. The 18-24 group doubled in size since the 2017 point-in-time census.

Ben Johnson poses with his nephew after graduating from high school in Phoenix, Arizona, in May 2023. Homeless Youth Connection provided Johnson with services when he was experiencing homelessness. Homeless Youth Connection helps Phoenix, Arizona, high school students experiencing homelessness. Homeless Youth Connection helps Phoenix, Arizona, high school students experiencing homelessness. Homeless Youth Connection provided Ben Johnson with services when he was experiencing homelessness in Phoenix, Arizona.

Some of the young adults and kids face homelessness in family units, while others, like Ben, have to make do without a parent or guardian by their side.

For Ben and other local high schoolers who experience homelessness while unaccompanied, Homeless Youth Connection (HYC) fills the gap with crucial support to help get them over the finish line and graduate.

Access to a safe bed, meals and school are major elements that can shape a child’s future and be the deciding factors between a life of chronic homelessness and one of stability.

Ben and his twin brother found those things at HYC’s transitional living facility in central Phoenix after their adoptive mother kicked them out.

When Ben became a legal adult, he reached out to his biological father, something his adoptive mother prohibited while he was a minor.

“I couldn’t see him, because he gave up his rights,” Ben said. “And then when I turned 18, I reached out to him.”

As Ben talked more with his father, his adoptive mother became increasingly unhappy with the situation.

“My brother wanted to meet him,” Ben said. “And so, when he did, my mom just kind of flipped out: ‘Just pack your stuff and go.’”

Ben and his brother spent one night unsheltered on the city streets before they stayed with another family for more time. Ben’s brother eventually shared their situation with school faculty, and they were led to HYC.

“We work with all of the different school liaisons, and they’re the ones who identify the kids,” said Dawn Bogart, co-CEO of HYC.

Bogart said the solution to lowering the number of at-risk youths is to get to them early and identify why they are in these situations so they can be prevented. At-risk youths who get their diplomas are far less likely to experience homelessness again, she said.

“For us to be able to provide them with safe and stable housing all the way through graduation, it just really ensures that they’re going to be able to focus on their education, stay in school and graduate,” she said.

Bogart said her group sees four main reasons that youths become homeless:

  • Parents remarry and new partners ask a child to leave the home.
  • Parents are unable to provide adequate support due to things like drug use.
  • They identify as LGBTQ+ and their parents do not support it. About 20% of unaccompanied youths in Arizona identify as LGBTQ+, Bogart said.
  • Children turn 18 and their parents feel they’re no longer responsible for their care.

HYC’s solutions center around stable housing that keeps students experiencing homelessness engaged in school, offering wraparound services that include case management and continued transitional support as they enter adulthood.

Transportation, for example, is a major factor in the Valley due to the size of the area and how spread-out certain services can be.

“Meaning, they can go to the football games and the basketball games, participate in band, or drama or student council,” Bogart said, “The chances of them staying engaged in high school is dramatically increased.”

For Ben, access to transportation through HYC meant he was not only able to reliably get to school, but to practice and other important events.

There are also the simple necessities. “Most of all, I’m just really appreciative to have a bed to stay in, you know?” Ben said.

Being able to graduate has empowered Ben for his future.

“Man, like Kobe said, ‘Job’s not finished,’” he said, quoting late NBA star Kobe Bryant. “When people ask me about graduation, yeah, I’m excited — but I got places to be.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

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Without a Home: Valley youths experiencing homelessness face distinct hurdles