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Young and homeless in Tucson

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Young and homeless in Tucson

6,000 runaway or homeless youth in Pima County alone


As homeless people cleared their belongings from the Downtown encampment called "Safe Park" over the weekend, youth homelessness in Arizona still stands among the highest in the nation.

A young man sits outside the Joel D. Valdez Main Library in downtown Tucson smoking a cigarette, listening to music and charging his iPod in one of the building's outlets. He's wearing faded cargo pants and a sweatshirt that looks too big for him. A gray beanie covers the thick mane of dirty-blond hair that falls over his blue eyes.

Tim Blutfield, 19, has lived around the corner at the "Safe Park," on Church Street and Broadway. For months, many homeless youth and adults used the park, officially named Veinte de Agosto Park, as a place to sleep and keep their belongings.

"I've only been homeless for two years," Tim said. His mom kicked him out after his dad died "to make room for my sister's boyfriend's kids," he said.

Tim's friends at the Safe Park have become "like a big gigantic family." They watch each other's things, help out with food and pass on the word about jobs. Everybody has a place to sleep and keep things. "I have a sleeping bag and six or seven other blankets that I use," Tim said.

Tim isn't the only young person who was living in the Safe Park. Elizabeth Jasso, who has also lived in the park, said she knows many teens there. "There's lots of them that go to Fourth to try to make money."

Tim is one of them. He walks up and down 4th Avenue asking people for money to buy food or cigarettes. "It's not really that much fun or useful," he said, but he has to do something.

"We have to keep moving on with our lives, trying to get our lives sorted out," Tim said.

Tim is one of 2.5 million youth in the United States who experienced homelessness last year, either alone or with their families.

Homeless youth

Young people like Tim are all too common in Tucson. According to a November 2014 report from the National Center on Family Homelessness, youth in Arizona are more at risk for homelessness than kids in any other state. High rates of teen pregnancy, home foreclosures and childhood poverty make Arizona children susceptible to homelessness.

Youth homelessness is at a "historic high" in the United States, according to the report. In 2013, one in every 30 children experienced homelessness. In Arizona, 62,616 children were homeless, and the state reported more than 6,000 runaway or homeless youth in Pima County alone.

Those numbers are increasing. In 2014, Youth On Their Own was providing services to 965 homeless youth ages 12 to 21 in Pima County. That's 20 percent more than in 2013.

"These kids that we serve have not done anything to warrant their parents not being there for them," said Dane Binder, director of programs at Youth On Their Own.

Young people become homeless for many reasons.

"They leave home because they've come out as LGBT," said Laurie Mazerbo, the New Beginnings program director at Our Family Services in Tucson. "They leave home because there might be substance abuse or domestic violence in the home, and they don't feel safe."

Some are kicked out. Others leave because they have younger siblings and want to reduce the burden on their families. They might have experienced physical or sexual abuse, or have parents who have been deported or passed away.

Still other children enter Our Family and other shelters with their families.

Homeless as a family

Cami and Esther, who chose not to give their last names, sit together in a classroom at the Gospel Rescue Mission's Women and Children's Center in Tucson. Both are in the Restoration drug recovery program. Both are mothers of young children.

"I hit rock bottom," Cami said.

Her 5-year-old son sometimes visits her at the mission, but Cami doesn't have custody right now. She's working hard to maintain a relationship with him and make up for things that have happened in the past. "I've already lost one son," she said.

Esther's two children, a 6-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, live with her at the shelter. She came here because she was at a crossroads in her life, she said. She and her kids were "about to become homeless."

Things are much better for the family now, Esther said. They have a stable place to live, she is recovering from her addictions and she has support. But it's still a challenge for the kids.

"They don't want to follow the rules," Esther said. The kids have had a hard time adjusting to the new schedules and boundaries. There isn't much privacy at the shelter either.

Esther and her children have their own room with a living area, bedroom and bathroom, but everyone eats together in the dining hall at designated meal times. If the family wants to watch TV or have a snack, they use common rooms that are shared by all the women in the program. Children have to stay close to their mothers unless they are in the day care.

"It's hard because a lot of children who have been homeless have not had a lot of supervision, especially when there is addiction," said program supervisor Dee Cardinale.

Esther and Cami both said they think the challenge is worth it.

"Kids can be kids here," Cami said. Before, she didn't realize how much she had neglected her son, because she was also neglecting herself. She is trying to mend that relationship as she puts her own life back together.

Not enough room

Not all homeless families find a space at the Gospel Rescue Mission or other shelters in Tucson, however.

"We turn away between five and 25 women and children every day," Cardinale said. The shelter is almost always full.

Our Family Services faces the same issue, according to Mazerbo. "There just aren't enough beds for the amount of people that need them," she said.

Many other people are living "one paycheck away" from homelessness, according to Scott Munro, the director of development at the Gospel Rescue Mission.

The need comes in large part from a lack of affordable housing. In 2013 the minimum wage was $7.80 per hour, but a family needed to earn $17.19 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Arizona, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

"A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States," according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Families looking for affordable housing don't have many options. Tucson needs about 60,000 more affordable housing units to meet the needs, according to Sally Stang, director of Housing and Community Development for the city of Tucson. Once a family is on the list, it often takes four years or more to get into a housing unit.

While not all families end up on the street, many are couch surfing or "doubled-up," sharing a home between two or more families.

Youth living alone often do the same thing.

"A lot of kids have pretty big networks, and they are really good at working those networks to find a place to stay, even if temporarily," said Binder from Youth On Their Own. "So whereas we have a few students who will from time to time be unable to find housing and may spend a night in the park or out in the wash, usually the next night they've got someplace to stay."

He said most Tucsonans want to help kids out who don't have a place to stay. But Munro doesn't think most people realize how many homeless children there are in Tucson.

He remembered learning that more people give donations if they see a flier with a homeless man on it than one with a homeless woman and child.

"People didn't want to believe that women and kids really were homeless," he said. It was a struggle to get people to recognize that this was a real issue.

Beyond the beds

Dealing with childhood homelessness requires much more than providing youth and families with a place to sleep.

"We need to help people with issues of domestic violence and substance abuse and all of those kinds of things to prevent youth becoming homeless in the first place. If we do a lot more work with families on the front end, then we can probably avoid some of that," Mazerbo said.

While Mayor Jonathan Rothschild agreed that families need more support, he thinks too much of the burden for providing these services has fallen on the non-profit sector in Arizona. Addressing youth homelessness will require collaboration between the private sector, non-profits and the government, he said.

The problem is finding the support necessary for collaboration, Stang said. She has seen federal funding for affordable housing drop by 50 percent over the past five years.

"Congress is sending a message," she said. "This is not their priority."

That's why it is so important for Tucsonans to know the issues in their community and to be thoughtful and proactive voters, Binder of Youth on Their Own said.

* * * * *

Interviewed prior to the city's barring the use of plywood shelters at the park, Tim got up from he the library entrance to walk back to Safe Park. He's tall, and his long arms swung by his side with each long stride as he walked away.

He said that every morning and every night, groups bring food to the people staying at the park. It helps for the moment, but he doesn't really have a plan for the future.

"I'll probably stay in Tucson," Tim said. At least the weather is good.

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