NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, February 12th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Part 2 in a series on at-risk children on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
It’s an area with an unusually high number of them.
EICHER: Have you ever seen Beach Boulevard that runs along the Gulf Coast? It’s known as one of the most scenic byways in the country. You see on one side the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. On the other, huge Live Oak trees spreading out wide and hanging low, shading beautiful homes.
But along the way, you also encounter empty lots, swept clean by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It’s earned the name: “boulevard of broken dreams.”
REICHARD: And that brokenness may account in part for the area’s high foster care numbers. What happens as those kids transition out of foster care?
WORLD Radio’s Kim Henderson takes us to the city of Ocean Springs to find out.
EASLEY: There’s the backyard. Our garden’s in bad shape now, but we do a summer garden and a winter garden and get the kids involved.
KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: That’s Diane Easley. She’s the founder of a ministry called Community Care Network. Their residential shelter for women and children sits about three miles from the beach….
EASLEY: We have two acres out back. We want to put cottages, so we can quit turning people away. That’s really, really hard.
In 2016, volunteers conducted a homeless population study—visiting soup kitchens, libraries, and the woods.
EASLEY: It gives us a snapshot of the day. But we can extrapolate from that. We realized we had an increase in homelessness among 18 to 24 year-olds.
According to a year-long study by client services for the homeless, it grew by some 500-percent from 20-15 to 20-16.
Mary Simons of The Open Doors Homeless Coalition explains:
SIMONS: What we have found is that young people aged 18 to 24 who are experiencing homelessness generally stay hidden. They don’t want others to know that they’re experiencing homelessness.
They also learned many in this group had something else in common: They were former wards of the state. More than one-third of all youth who age out of foster care experience homelessness as they move into adulthood.
EASLEY: We have a room that we can do counseling…
Last year, the coast’s homeless coalition helped house 67 young adults. Some, like one dropout who attended seven schools in one year, lived in the woods. Easley says others were from a nearby college campus.
EASLEY: We have two clients right now that the community college system called us and said, this kid is trying so hard, but they have nowhere to sleep at night…
The group also gets referrals from law enforcement, doctors, and pastors.
EASLEY: Caseworkers with the youth court system who will call us and go, okay, I’ve got somebody who’s going to be in trouble in six months. They’re going to be out. And what we want to do is go ahead and start, maybe establish a relationship with them before they hit the street.
Sometimes those relationships are hard to get off the ground. That’s understandable, since foster system graduates often deal with abandonment issues and PTSD. Easley says some don’t even know their fathers’ name.
EASLEY: Many of them are just very angry. I mean they have been hurt by, what they consider, the system, by their families. They’re angry at not having things the way they see other young adults having them. They’re angry at God…
That’s why meeting the needs of this age group required a different approach.
EASLEY: At 18 you think you’re grown, so they’re not really interested in coming into a shelter with a bunch of other adults or children.
One solution moves beyond quick, temporary housing to providing tools needed to function as adults—things like resumes and transportation.
EASLEY: This is like the nerve board. It tells us who’s got to be where. Who’s got a job. So we’re constantly needing volunteers to help us drive and pick people up, take them to work, or take them to an interview.
Also, in Mississippi, you can’t sign a lease until you’re 21. But Easley and her group have a list of landlords that are willing to work with them, and they’re pushing for a change in the lease law.
AUDIO: [Home construction]
Easley says the physical clean-up and still on-going repair across the Gulf Coast is a picture of what she’s trying to do everyday with these homeless young adults…restoring people’s lives.
EASLEY: I think we all know what happened to us after Katrina. My own home was gone. We all know what it felt like for those groups to come in and help restore us, that people on the coast are so aware of, okay, well, we can do this.
When she speaks to churches, Easley encourages listeners to show grace toward the homeless.
EASLEY: They may be covered in tattoos and piercings, and they’re just walking in with a chip on their shoulder waiting for you to knock it off. And, unfortunately, there’s some church people knock it off because they look down on them. If they knew their real story, it would break their heart.
While some churches are resistant, Easley says many are ready to help out once a young person secures an apartment. That’s when she gets the word out: “We need a bed. We need a couch. We need salt and pepper.”
Donors respond, and sometimes with much more than the requested items. They offer life skills training as well.
EASLEY: We’ve literally gone in and go, no, this is the way you clean a bathroom. This is how you mop, this is what needs to be done once a month or once a week…
That kind of training helped Katie, someone Easley describes as a former “couch surfer.” Before she joined their program, she’d been in lots of foster homes. Like so many other homeless youth, she was in danger of becoming a victim of human trafficking.
EASLEY: She ended up getting her GED and a welding certificate. She’s a petite young lady. She is making more at the shipyard now as welder than anyone on my staff.
That’s not only good for Katie, but for local municipalities and taxpayers as well. One study found a chronically homeless person can drain more than $30,000 a year from government coffers. That figure includes the cost of emergency room visits, jail stays, and the salaries of law enforcement officers.
EASLEY: We had a youth group come and do a project…
Easley won’t take credit for the ones who make it. Nor does she beat herself up over those who don’t. She acknowledges it’s God’s work, and she’s just the vessel.
EASLEY: The main thing is they’re looking for some kind of an answer. They’re either going to find it at the right place, or at the wrong place. So we as a faith congregation have got to open up our eyes and accept those people that don’t look like they’re looking, because they are. They are.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Ocean Springs, Mississippi.