Havens and hope for homeless youth

Posted: November 18, 2012

Almost Home

Helping Kids Move From Homelessness to Hope

By Kevin Ryan and Tina Kelley

Foreword by Cory Booker

Wiley. 256 pp. $16.95 (paperback)

More than a million youths were homeless in the United States last year, and their numbers are growing.

Almost Home, by Kevin Ryan and Tina Kelley, tells the story of homeless young people who find their way to Covenant House, and its promise of safe harbor, emotional support, and a chance at a better life.

Founded in 1972, Covenant House is a large charity that operates an extensive network of shelters in cities across North America, including Philadelphia, helping runaway and homeless youth and young adults.

While Philadelphia's family shelter system provides support for many families with young children, this book is about older kids who are alone - without family, or at least a protective or permanent one. Rejection, abandonment, cruelty, mistakes, addiction, and loss pervade their stories and their lives.

While poverty is the primary cause of family homelessness, these young people need far more than physical space. They are disconnected from family and systems. They have numbed themselves with drugs, been beaten and trafficked and thrown out of their homes over and over again. As many enter their 20s, they seek safety, acceptance, and the healing of internal and external injuries.

Helping Kids Move From Homelessness to Hope is the subtitle of the book; the role that Covenant House plays in this assistance is the focal point of these pages.

We meet Paulie, 17, whose history at Covenant House is already long, and learn his life story of family rejection and cruelty, of getting addicted, cleaning up and getting addicted again. We hear him say that home was somewhere else because "it had to be."

We see his search for a home blocked by his behavior. He leaves Covenant House because he can't stay while using drugs, but he knows he can come back when he can live by the rules.

We learn about Muriel, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and who blames herself for her adoptive father's leaving when she was young. As she enters adolescence, she and her friends numb themselves with drugs and live as prostitutes.

We see Kelly, who is thrown out of her home because she is gay; Creionna, who is trying to care for her baby alone; and Benjamin, who ages out of foster care and, like so many others, becomes homeless.

Most of these young adults are in their 20s, but already have lived harrowing lives.

We watch some tattoo on their bodies the names of the relatives and relationships they still hope for as they seek some connection, some permanence. We meet other young people who are able with help to overcome their history and reclaim life with hope.

Ryan, the president of Covenant House, and Kelley, a former Inquirer correspondent and former New York Times staff writer, can get a little preachy and note the failings of government in looking out for and providing help to these young people. While Covenant House's remarkable insistence and persistence in providing an open door for many is notable, so, too, are the many government programs that have saved countless lives. Caring, permanence, safety, and security are the results not of private- or public-sector activity but of human commitment.

Almost Home reminds us that there is work for all of us here - to stop looking away and to do a better job of protecting struggling youth.

While the focus of the book is on the important work of Covenant House, it raises important questions about our values, family, and society.

Shelly D. Yanoff is stepping down after 25 years as the leader of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, an advocacy and community education nonprofit organization.

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