Home for the holidays

Ashley left home at 18, just after graduating from high school.

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“They kicked me out, but I was happy to leave,” she says about her mom and step-dad. Her parents gave Ashley an ultimatum — obey their rules or get out. Their rules included taking care of her 10-year-old brother and “literally doing every chore in the house,” she says. So she left. “I know it sounds selfish, but not when you’re there.”

She describes moving constantly for as long as she can remember — 14 times between East Texas, where she was born, and Colorado. Sometimes they lived in motels, sometimes they shared houses with other families. They were evicted a couple of times. Ashley went to three elementary schools, four middle schools and two high schools. She claims her stepdad is an alcoholic and her mom smokes six or seven bowls a day. They yell at each other constantly and have almost divorced, she says.

So at 18, Ashley had had enough. A person she met online picked her up from her parent’s apartment just outside Boulder County. “It was really crazy. I’ve never met this person before, and they just came and picked me up from my parents’ house,” she says. “I trusted him, he wasn’t a monster. He didn’t want something out of it, he wanted to help me.”

This new friend helped Ashley find a job at Burger King and let her crash on his couch. But his roommates weren’t so generous, and Ashley only lived there for a week. From there, she went to stay with another guy she met online, and he had an entire spare room for her. “The only thing that I didn’t like about it is he was a big time weed smoker, and he would always bring home girls which was really weird,” she says. “Because [they were from] the site he found me on and he was helping me out. And in return I had to give him favors.”

She left that situation too and over the course of the next six weeks spent a night or two with different guys she met online. “It was really hard to find guys that weren’t just wanting sex,” she says. She started screening guys based on their photos, their interests and their posts. And how they talked to her.

She finally ended up with another 18-year-old who still lived with his mom. “I got to stay two nights with him, and his mother actually helped me find this place,” she says.

We’re sitting at The Source, the runaway and homeless youth shelter run by Attention Homes, a Boulder nonprofit helping at-risk and homeless youth with shelter, hot meals and life skills to build an independent future. “This is the happiest I’ve lived,” Ashley says. “I enjoy the people, I enjoy the friendships I have gotten here.”

On any given night, there are 168 youth experiencing homelessness in Boulder County, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Point-in-Time count. “Where it gets sort of sticky with youth is that it’s a hard definition of homelessness, and it doesn’t count couch surfing…” says Chris Nelson, director of programs at Attention Homes. “It’s largely counting people who are literally living on the streets. And youth are still pretty culturally connected, and so they are still staying with friends and stuff. Plus youth are just tough to find.”

The Source houses 14 kids each night and has served over 800 unique individuals in 2015. “Significant family conflict” is the major reason kids leave home, Nelson says, whether that means the youth are kicked out or their family knows they are leaving and don’t stop them.

Another cause of teen homelessness is aging out of the foster care system, as 60 percent of youth Attention Homes works with have been in the foster care system at some point. And a small but increasing percentage of youth experiencing homelessness are a product of dissolved or disrupted adoptions.

Forty percent of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ and are ostracized from their communities or kicked out of their homes, Nelson says.

Emerging mental health issues and substance abuse are also prevalent among youth experiencing homelessness, and often go hand-in-hand.

Another 10 percent of youth that Nelson and Attention Homes work with are rebelling against authority at home, and these youth can be difficult to keep track of. “It’s independence and sort-of developmentally normative free will exercise,” Nelson says.

As further proof that the Point-in-Time count understates the problem, there are 700 youth in Boulder Valley School District and 750 in the St. Vrain Valley School District who are registered as homeless this year.

And while these statistics are staggering, Attention Homes has been fairly successful in re-engaging youth with their families, whether that’s a direct guardian or other relatives. “We identify people in their lives that they would be willing to live with, and then we start exploring with those people that they’ve identified whether or not it would be an option and then what kind of support do they need,” Nelson says. “That’s a priority for every youth that comes into our shelter, no matter what their age, is to reconnect them with family or engage them with family that maybe they haven’t lived with but it might be an option now.”

While working with Attention Homes, Ashley reconnected with her maternal grandparents in Texas and was able to purchase a plane ticket to Texas to live with them.

Previous to staying at The Source, Ashley hadn’t even considered traveling back to her home state. “Texas was a no go for me because I knew I wouldn’t have a way to get there,” she says. “The complications… I wasn’t ready.”

After close to four months at The Source, Ashley left Boulder on December 2. I spoke with her this week and asked her how it feels being back in Texas.

“It feels like home,” she says.

She’s living with her mom’s parents, visits her step-dad’s parents and sees her uncles often. She spent an entire day decorating for Christmas, including putting up a tree and outside lights, which didn’t always happen when she lived at home. “It’s something I’ve missed,” she says.

She doesn’t miss the Colorado winter and is enjoying the weather in Texas, but she does miss some of her friends from Attention Homes and her little brother. “I felt bad because I couldn’t get him out,” she says. “All my friends told me I should have gotten him out, but he’s 10 right now. I can’t. And if I take him from my parents, it will kill [my] relationship [with them].”

She’s taking driver’s ed classes and hopes to get her license soon. She’s already applied for several jobs and while she’s waiting to hear back, she’s been helping her grandma clean out the house, and putting aside furniture and other things for a future home of her own.

“I can stay with [my grandparents] for as long as I need or want,” she says. “I just want to get my own place. But who doesn’t?”

Plus, she’s reconnected with some childhood friends, including one girl she grew up riding the bus to school with, who turns out to be her half sister. Although Ashley has never met her biological father, he still lives in the same town. They are friends on Facebook and she has plans to meet him soon, after the holidays.

Ashley is excited. “It’s going to be a different experience, but I kind of want it,” she says. “The next chapter is starting.”

Editor’s note: Due to safety concerns and legal considerations, Ashley is a pseudonym.

For more information on Attention Homes or to make donations, visit www. attentionhomes.org or call 303-447-1207

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