ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - For a while, Charlene Brown was a fixture in the Starbucks at Tropicana Casino and Resort.
Passers-by paid her no mind. As she says, she does not look homeless. With dark locks meticulously arranged in loose curls, nose buried in her laptop, she blended in.
Still, the day she was evicted from her home is fresh in her mind.
“I was just tossing stuff down the stairs, like ‘I gotta take this, I gotta take this,’” the 22-year-old told the Press of Atlantic City (https://bit.ly/1QtGU2a). “I was just scared. Where was I gonna go?”
Stories like Brown’s are the stories of young homelessness in South Jersey. People transition into adulthood camouflaged by their surroundings. They crash on couches and bounce between the homes of friends and relatives. They sleep in their cars or sometimes in abandoned buildings.
Many believe homelessness among Brown’s age group is growing in South Jersey, but no accurate data exist. Like Brown, the group is not easily identified, making the issue challenging to address and near impossible to solve.
But advocates are trying.
Experts say the extent of the problem is tough to gauge since homeless youths often don’t show up in traditional counts.
The 2014 U.S. Housing and Urban Development-mandated Atlantic County Point in Time count - completed on a single January night - identified 61 homeless people between the ages of 18 and 24, one of whom was unsheltered.
That number is a far cry from what Brian Nelson, site director of Atlantic City’s Covenant House, sees.
Covenant House, a shelter for youths ages 18 to 21, has at least 250 young homeless adults per year living in the shelter, Nelson said. And the Atlantic Homeless Alliance said it has helped 539 people within that age group since it opened in January 2014.
Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said successful efforts to aid certain homeless groups, such as veterans, did well because of accurate and available data.
Covenant House operates as its own network, with job services, counseling, religious services, educational resources and medical treatment all offered in-house.
“If we say go down the street for vocational services, or go six more blocks for health services, they are never going to make it,” Nelson said, adding he sees more young people every year.
Covenant House has operated at capacity for the past few years, he said. Some residents sleep in the lounge until a bed becomes available. He said he knows of at least 30 other youths sleeping in abandoned areas not far from the Atlantic Avenue facility.
“And it is more than just Atlantic County kids, many of which have been kicked out of their homes after the casinos closed - but it is kids from different points throughout the state, and they point to a larger issue that there are just not enough places for young people.”
Brown bounced around before she came to Covenant House. She stayed in a partially furnished home in Camden with her cousin. There was no kitchen, and her cousin’s boyfriend and child lived there as well.
When they went to a nearby family member’s house to eat, Brown stayed behind, not wanting to impose.
“I think I stayed there for maybe two weeks,” she said. “I guess I left because I was just getting fed up.”
Brown hopped a bus from Camden and became a Covenant House resident last year, the day after her 21st birthday.
Pride is a driving force that keeps youths hidden. Brown said people typically wonder how someone like her could get to this point, jumping to conclusions such as drugs or a criminal record.
“If I was to walk into a room of total strangers, if somebody was to ask, ‘What do you picture when I say the word homeless,’ I am willing to bet that the answer they get is adults or sleeping in boxes,” said Emma Holmes, 22, another Covenant House resident. “You don’t picture that I am homeless.”
“I had my whole life mapped out before this,” added Tatyanna Abrams, 19.
Abrams’ mother killed herself, so Abrams moved in with an aunt when she was 11.
She entered the foster care system at 13 after what was later identified as post-traumatic stress disorder became too much for her aunt to handle. Abrams bounced between homes for a while.
She now sleeps in an abandoned home in the city. Abrams was banned from staying at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. She spends her days traveling among three shelters in the city and the public library or a nearby Starbucks.
Abrams uses a donated tablet to keep in touch with family via Facebook. She said many relatives have gotten married or had children - events she was not involved in or sometimes not even told about.
“The hardest part now is that it feels like my whole family left me behind,” she said.
Berg, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, could not give an example nationally of any city that is doing a “good job” of preventing homelessness among young adults as a whole.
Ideally, Berg pictures an organized state, community and even national push for an accurate census and a systematic approach.
Once that exists, people of that age group could be tracked and a program’s effectiveness could be evaluated for each case, creating a coordinated effort, he said.
“A program could be doing its job, but you are not ending homelessness because that one program cannot end homelessness. They are not doing anything wrong; there is just another job that needs to be done,” Berg said.
In Atlantic County, aside from Covenant House, youths also seek assistance from the Atlantic City Rescue Mission and other shelters.
According to county officials, the homeless are evaluated and referred to different programs on a case-by-case basis.
Those with issues such as alcohol or drug addiction are sent to rehab facilities. Others, depending on circumstance, may be enrolled in public assistance programs or job and education programs.
But anyone older than 18 is treated as an adult.
There are few programs in Atlantic County specifically for young adults, said John McLernon, director of community relations and social services for the county. He often finds it challenging to get young homeless adults to accept help to address long-term issues.
Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), https://www.pressofatlanticcity.com
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