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For some homeless teens, social service system is full of holes


Nick Schultz uses this bicycle to get around town, including the hotel where a local social service agency is paying for him to live. Like dozens of other teenagers in Kenosha County, Schultz faced homelessness earlier this year after learning he was too old for foster care but couldn't support himself while still in high school. ( KENOSHA NEWS PHOTO BY BRIAN PASSINO )

BY JESSICA STEPHEN
jstephen@kenoshanews.com

Nick Schultz lives in a rooming house.

He shares a bathroom and kitchen with people he doesn’t know. He tries not to think about how much he hates it. And he calls a local shelter coordinator almost every day for advice, support or just to say hi.

But he’s not on the street. And he’s pretty sure he knows where he’ll be sleeping every night, at least for the rest of the semester.

Which is more than the high school senior knew in November — and so much less than he hoped for after months worrying he wouldn’t have a place to live.

It’s also less than one local legislator and members of Kenosha County’s social service system hoped they could deliver after turning their combined attention toward finding emergency foster care for Schultz and another area teenager.

“It’s a hard time,” Schultz said.

That’s because Schultz, like dozens of other teens in Kenosha County who have lost their homes — and often at least one of their parents — are caught in a kind of social service limbo.

At 18, they can work and drive and rent apartments. Their families can legally turn their backs. And society says they should be able to pull it all together.

But with no jobs, no driver’s licenses or cars and no homes to call their own, many lack the resources to really pull it off.

On top of that, they are too old for most foster care. And there’s little hope of help from young adult independent living programs; the waiting lists are just too long.

So, they ask to stay at a friend’s house. They call an aunt. They clean basements and garages and promise not to be too much trouble, hoping it’s enough to buy them one more day.

Then, they wait. For a call. For help. For the bottom to drop out.

It’s a heart-breaking cycle that JoAnna Wynn has watched too many times since she opened Walkin’ In My Shoes, a homeless youth drop-in center in Kenosha.

And it’s a cycle she’s seen play out since Schultz asked for her help earlier this year.

The downward spiral

For Schultz, the spiral began over the summer.

He and his dad disagreed about a family relationship and, he said, his dad showed him the door.

After that, he couch-hopped his way around town, crashing with family, friends, anyone who would help. As his 18th birthday approached in November, he realized he might not be able to count on such kindnesses much longer.

“I can hardly concentrate in school as it is because of what’s going on,” Schultz said a few weeks ago.

But he has no plans to drop out. In fact, he wants to go to college. The Universal Technical Institute in Illinois, to be exact. And he wants to be a mechanic.

For now, that goal — and the automotive classes he takes at school — are about all that’s keeping him in school. That and the hope that, if he can just get a job, just get a place to live, he can reunite with his siblings, who scattered after his mother died a few years ago.

But even those tethers frayed as the months wore on with no permanent place to live.

Finally, a school counselor directed him to Crisis Intervention, which gave him four phone numbers — one for a homeless shelter, two for independent living programs and one for Wynn.

No luck at the shelter; you’ve got to be 18 to stay. No luck with the programs; there were 50 or 60 people, age 18 to 21, on the list ahead of him.

Wynn was the only one who could help.

And, she said, “I still feel like I failed him.”

Finally, he got wheels

Wynn did get Schultz a new bike — not something she expected when she called a local shop to ask about a repair.

But it was a godsend for Schultz, who, while he can fix most any car, can’t yet drive; he hasn’t had the money or means to get his license, so he relies on his bike to get around. And his old, too-small dirt bike just wasn’t up to it.

But when it came to housing, Wynn just couldn’t make it happen.

 

She called social services, homeless shelters, everyone she could think of. Who then called everyone they could think of.

Nothing.

Then, someone called state Rep. Samantha Kerkman.

“I immediately got on the phone,” said Kerkman, R-Randall.

Even Kerkman wasn’t sure what to expect. But, by that afternoon, caseworkers had cut through (some of) the confusion of what to do with an almost 18-year-old, and the temporary placement in the group home was arranged.

Not ideal, those involved agreed, but better than the street.

Judge on his side

The situation reminded Kerkman, who first experienced the child welfare world years ago when her parents fostered one of her childhood friends, that the system has definite holes.

“The system is sound, but we need to make changes. I think there is a greater need than ever before,” Kerkman said.

But, she admitted, “It’s a difficult system to fix.”

Particularly as young people age out of that system.

With 18 still the end date for nearly all foster care, Kerkman worried what would happen to young adults like Schultz in the years after that — those still-formative times in their early 20s when, not quite children and not quite capable adults, young people learn to balance checkbooks and cook simple dinners. Years when, while not required, it can be so transformative to have a place to go for Thanksgiving or Christmas, someone to check on them, someone to call.

For Schultz, that person has been Wynn, who joked about becoming “surrogate grandmother” for Schultz and other teens in his position.

Kerkman hopes she can help

Kerkman hasn’t quite gained surrogate status, but she has developed a concern for Schultz and the other teenager, who did not want to speak for this story.

When she intervened, Kerkman didn’t even know their names. And, as the holidays approached, privacy rules kept her from getting anything but scant details about how they were doing.

Still, she kept tabs from afar, thinking of them and working toward ways to avoid situations like theirs in the future. And she and Wynn prepared separately to meet with state and county officials, each trying to work with children and family service agencies to improve foster care and help homeless teens.

For now, Kerkman said, “I’m hopeful that these kids can use some of the things they’ve been given in their short time in the system. Get their feet on the ground.”

And a permanent place to rest their heads.

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Last Modified: 1/05/2012