Las Vegas Sun

April 19, 2014

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Partnership working to help homeless teenagers

Herman Wilson ran away from home in Mississippi at age 14 after an older cousin put a gun to his head. He left when his grandparents, who were raising him, refused to believe him, he said.

Melissa Blizzard had numerous arguments and physical fights with her mother in their California home that culminated in her being kicked out at age 17.

Wilson, who just turned 20, and Blizzard, now 18, are among a number of teenage runaways and "throwaways" in Las Vegas who are or recently were homeless. Experts put the number at 3,000 in Southern Nevada and say there are few programs or services to address the problem.

"What makes this such a huge problem is simply because they are children and because I believe there was no opinion on homeless teens as recently as three years ago," said Kathleen Boutin, founder of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth.

"If you asked anyone three years ago, they probably would have said we don't have any homeless teens in Southern Nevada."

But three years ago the partnership, whose board members come from agencies such as Catholic Charities, Shade Tree Shelter, Westcare and Boys Town, commissioned a study by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that found not only are thousands of area youths homeless, but also that the average age of local homeless teens was 16.

Some kids had been on the streets since age 8, and many were between 11 and 14 years old, the study said. An estimated 80 percent had been sexually or physically abused.

They hadn't been able to get help until recently, largely because of a 1909 state law that prohibited people or agencies from assisting youths without parental permission.

The Legislature last year relaxed that law, granting criminal and civil immunity to those who help children 12 and older who have been sexually or physically abused.

The new law means that teens who once bounced from one friend to the next for a spare sofa -- a practice called "couch surfing" -- or headed to the streets can tap resources previously unavailable.

"When I was couch surfing, I'd hear people talk, asking when is 'he' going to leave," Wilson said. "Stuff like that makes you feel that you are better off on the streets.

"I learned from being homeless that I didn't want to stay homeless."

The Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, which lobbied for the "right to shelter" bill, moved to provide resources to get kids off the street as soon as the law went into effect in October, opening a drop-in center for homeless teens. It has since developed an outreach program with Terrible Herbst stations to identify teens in need and to get them help.

The partnership now plans to raise $2 million to build a homeless shelter for the under-21 crowd, the first in the Las Vegas Valley. The goal is to give them a safe place to stay and help them become self-sufficient, an aim shared by most shelters, but one that has the potential to break a cycle of homelessness early, Boutin said.

"National statistics show that a quarter of the homeless adults in America today were homeless as teenagers," Boutin said. "If that had been addressed years ago, we could have significantly cut our homeless problem today."

The group has a goal of building the shelter in five years, though it doesn't yet have a site.

Boutin said it is vital to reach homeless children while they can still be easily integrated back into society.

"They are young enough so that the services are prevention-based and not intervention-based," Boutin said. "Many of these young children don't have substance abuse or mental health problems -- yet."

But the lack of a place to call home can spawn problems, Wilson said.

"Being homeless is like being suicidal," he said. "If you keep doing the same thing you are doing, your options are limited. By staying homeless, you remain poor, go to jail or you end up dead."

Wilson is now employed as a graveyard shift security guard and has his own apartment.

Blizzard, newly married, has also found her way off the streets and is living in a motel room with her 22-year-old husband.

She and Wilson still use the partnership's drop-in center at 2550 E. Tropicana Ave. to get food, take showers and use washing machines and computers. But the center is open only 4-8 p.m. daily. A full-time shelter is sorely needed, the organization says.

"This community really needs a teen homeless shelter, because we see too often children being thrown out of their homes for getting pregnant or because they made known a sexual preference or for other reasons," Boutin said. "These children often have nowhere to go."

That was the case with Blizzard.

"For four months, we slept in a field, parks, anywhere," she said of her and her husband. "For a short time, I stayed at a local women's shelter, but some of the women with children looked down on me because I wasn't abused or as bad off as they were. I felt like I didn't belong there."

Some teens don't even know where to start, and that's where the outreach program with Terrible Herbst and the National Safe Place program comes in.

At 80 Terrible Herbst locations, employees have been trained to assist youths with problems.

"The kids are given a place to sit down, something to eat or drink and can tell our employees about their problems," said Tim Herbst, vice president of the company. Then counselors from National Safe Place are called to get them more long-term help.

Since the program began in January, 13 area youths have been given significant help and numerous others have picked up brochures about National Safe Place assistance programs, Chris Kemper, in charge of overseeing Safe Place for Terrible Herbst, said.

Just recently a 15-year-old girl was hanging around outside a Terrible Herbst when the cashier spotted her and, as a result of her training, saw signs the girl had problems, April Mastroluca, a local Safe Place coordinator, said.

"The cashier went outside and talked to the girl, who eventually came in and sought help," Mastroluca said. "We later learned the girl had been severely beaten by a parent. This program got her the help she needed."

Wilson, who has dreams of one day owning his own rap music company, said the assistance he has received through the partnership has turned his life around.

"I recommend this place to other kids I meet all the time," he said.