21 July 2006


Too many children call city streets home

Looking back on his precarious but relatively brief life, Masa Warden shook his head. "No youth should be seeing the stuff I seen," he said. Warden, 20, was on the streets, running with gangs, in and out of foster homes and locked up for most of his teens. His life appears to be taken from a page in a first-ever census and survey of homeless youth that will be released today at a meeting of the area's regional homeless committee.

There may be 1,700 homeless youths, from ages 12 to 20, in the Las Vegas Valley. Many are escaping abuse or broken homes and are suffering from mental illness, according to the study. Like Warden, a disproportionately high percentage of homeless youths taking the survey were black - 36 percent. About 9 percent of Clark County's population is black, according to a U.S. Census Bureau estimate. The high number of blacks "stands out like a sore thumb � (and) is something we need to be taking a look at," said Kathleen Boutin, executive director of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, the nonprofit organization that helped organize the study. Hispanics represented 20 percent of the respondents.

The survey paints a portrait of mostly minority youths on the streets, in shelters or "couch surfing" at friends' houses. Many left troubled homes, passed through foster care, tangled with the law and lack health care, including psychological help. Clark County Manager Thom Reilly said those results point to the "inter-relatedness" of the different issues that lead youths to homelessness. "Many of these kids have multiple problems that you need to take into account. If you're going to be effective, you need to have one place with people trained in different areas or a case manager that can get them different services," he said.

The Nevada Partnership may be the closest to that, he added. Yet, 54 percent of the youths surveyed hadn't heard of the organization. Reilly said many youths who wind up on the streets or otherwise homeless have had such negative experiences in foster care and other parts of the child-welfare system that "they don't want to have anything to do with" other programs and don't seek help. With 48 percent of the youths saying they had been in foster care - and 42 percent saying they didn't like it - Boutin said the system needs to be reformed.

Study author Jason Gray of the research firm Strategic Solutions said he did the survey because "we don't know much about them (homeless youth), and we need to understand them better before we give them services." The census was based on a count done on valley streets last winter, a survey of local shelters and other agencies, and a statistical formula that accounts for the hard-to-study nature of the homeless population. The 50 youths participating in the survey were referred by shelters and other agencies.

About three-fourths were male and half were 15 to 17 years old. Only 30 percent said they attended school at the time of the survey. One-fourth were born in Las Vegas and almost two-thirds said that their parents live in the valley. One in three said physical, sexual or mental abuse at home led them to the streets, while 22 percent said their parents kicked them out. The high percentage of blacks in the youth study mirrored a 2003 survey of homeless adults at an annual event called the homeless Stand Down, in which 31 percent of respondents identified themselves as black. At that time, Dean Ishman, president of the Las Vegas NAACP chapter, said he would form a group to study the issue. On Wednesday, he said the effort had faltered because of "so many other competing interests." As for homeless black youths, he said, he was concerned and would seek "more facts and figures." Reilly said the number of homeless black youths mirrors those of juvenile justice and foster care: "They have an overrepresentation of African-American youth."

Warden, sitting in a second-floor office of the Nevada Partnership across the street from UNLV, said he could point to his "family situation" as the root of his homelessness - a father he never knew, a mother who died when he was 3 and a grandmother who tried to be his "mother, father and grandmother together." Eventually, he said, he looked to the streets for the family he lacked, including running with gangs. Thirty-eight percent of the youths in the survey said they are or were in gangs or had been approached by gangs. Warden said he never felt like he got help in juvenile detention or foster care. "When you get in trouble, they don't want to talk with you and set you right," he said. Now he's getting that help from Boutin's organization, working as a mentor for other youths. He's also going to therapy sessions, working on "all the fires that built up inside of me" during years on the streets, Warden said. "If I had just had a positive role model to sit me down and say what I need � all of it could've been avoided."

Timothy Pratt
20 July 2006



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