Our Kind of People

These women are helping the ‘secret homeless’ teens on the Coast with nowhere to go

Helping kids transition from foster care to warm apartments in South Mississippi are, from left, Shellie Carter, program director at Breakthrough, Diane Easley, executive director at Community Care Network, and Michelle LaRotonda, senior case manager at Sue’s Home in Ocean Springs. Breakthrough helps homeless young adults after they “age out” of foster care.
Helping kids transition from foster care to warm apartments in South Mississippi are, from left, Shellie Carter, program director at Breakthrough, Diane Easley, executive director at Community Care Network, and Michelle LaRotonda, senior case manager at Sue’s Home in Ocean Springs. Breakthrough helps homeless young adults after they “age out” of foster care. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Many kids look forward to their 18th birthday and leaving for college, but for those who grow up in the foster care system their 18th birthday often is the day they become homeless.

That’s when they “age out” of foster care. Unless they are going to college or have extraordinary circumstances, they are on their own.

If they have been in the juvenile justice system, a family member must come pick them up on their 18th birthday, says the staff of the Community Care Network, and sometimes that family member drops them off on the next corner and leaves.

A new program that began across South Mississippi in July, Breakthrough, helps 18- to 24-year-olds who have aged out of foster care and have no job or hopes of going to college, said Shellie Carter, director of the program for Community Care Network. Their stories otherwise may not have any hopes for a happy ending. Some of these kids lived in several foster homes and attended many schools. Some may have been abused, she said, and turned to drugs and alcohol to cope.

Carter said she can understand how scared and uncertain they are.

“I was a child of an addict,” she said, and at age 6 was taken from her mother and placed in foster care.

“I’ve been in your shoes,” she tells the kids.

Now at 47, she believes life has brought her to where she needs to be to put her own past to rest and to take those late-night phone calls from kids in Breakthrough who need help or just someone to listen to their concerns.

“I’m here for them yet they are still here for me,” she said.

The challenge

Seven adults and three children currently are in the program.

“We could double the capacity if we had funding to do so,” said Diane Easley, founder and executive director of Community Care Network, which oversees the program.

That’s where the 100 Day Challenge comes in. The challenge began in early December and has two ambitious goals for South Mississippi by March:

▪  House 50 homeless youths on the Coast.

▪  Work with 75 young people who are near aging out of foster care to develop a transitional plan and hopefully prevent them from becoming homeless. That could be going to college, reuniting with family or getting adopted.

In addition to donations to expand the program, the directors are looking for mentors who will work one-on-one to encourage the kids, teach them basic life skills and even drive them to a job interview.

More out there than you think

The need for Breakthrough became evident during the annual Point in Time Count done throughout the nation on the same day in January.

Locally it’s conducted by Open Doors Homeless Coalition, and executive director Mary Simons said more than 100 people throughout South Mississippi will go to the homeless camps, soup kitchens and look under bridges for the homeless trying to stay warm. It gives a snapshot of how many people are homeless on a single night in January, she said, and is a gauge for how the agencies are doing at helping the homeless.

The 2015 count showed a 300 percent increase in homelessness among ages 18 to 24 in the six southern counties, most of them on the Coast, Simons said. In every other age category the numbers went down, she said.

The current count of young people living outside in South Mississippi is 54, she said.

South Mississippi agencies applied for but didn’t a grant to specifically target homeless youth and young adults, she said, but did move funds around to create programs in the three Coast counties, she said. The area is one of four locations nationwide to get technical support for the 100 Day Challenge through “A Way Home America,” she said.

How it works

One of the first steps in finding an apartment so the young person has a warm, safe place to live.

“We have to provide them with everything,” Easley said, such as furniture and cooking supplies and even food. “There’s a lot to getting a young person housed who has nothing,” she said.

Breakthrough also assigns them a case manager and provides help learning how to apply for food stamps and search for jobs.

“It’s very overwhelming to 19-year-olds,” Carter said, since many of them don’t know how to cook or parent and “freeze” when asked to fill out job applications.

Youth homelessness often is kept a secret because they can live on friends’ couches and may still show up at school, she said. That’s where teachers and school counselors can help them learn about Breakthrough.

The youth courts and child protective services in the three Coast counties have all come together to back the challenge and make a difference in these kids lives.

“Let’s get them before they’re on the street,” Carter said.

Creative solutions

Until the day the young person buys in to the program, nothing will change, said Michele LaRotonda, program director of Sue’s Home in Ocean Springs, a transitional program for women and their children that’s also operated by Community Care Network.

“They don’t love you for that in the beginning,” she said, but as they move into a home and start building a life, “getting dignity back is a huge gift.”

They’ve had success stories, like a young woman in Gulfport who was homeless and now has apartment and a high school diploma and wants to start junior college in January.

Easley said they don’t take credit when one of the young people makes it, and neither do they take blame when they don’t — “this time.” Some leave the program, but the women say the door is always open for them to return.

Take the challenge

Those who need help or would like to help can call the Community Care Network at 228-215-2662 or Open Doors Coalition at 228-604-2048 or donate directly at ccnms.org/programs.

“These 100 days are to get us all working together,” Simons said.

About the series

Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.

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