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Some Teens in Berks have No Place to Call Home

By Stacie Jones
Voices assistant editor

His mom hit him up for money. She had nothing good to say. So he spent as few hours as possible there. On weekends, he slept at friends' houses.
"My mom came home drunk all the time," said the 18-year-old, an '07 graduate of Reading High School.
For the first time he feels at home, now that he's living with his pastor and his wife. He's focusing on his future with plans to start nursing school.
Experts call teens such as this Reading High student couch jumpers. There are also "throwaways" and runaways who are not stereotypically homeless and living on the street.
Not getting along with parents is the No. 1 reason youths leave home or get kicked out, said advocates who want to start a youth shelter in Reading.
"We don't see runaway and homeless youth on the streets, "said Eve Miller Beck, community educator for PeaceWorks, a project of Berks Women in Crisis. "The majority are 'couch jumpers,'" she said.
There's a major disconnect between the image of homelessness and what is really going on in some teens' lives, according to Miller Beck, who runs support groups in Berks County schools.
"They're telling me some pretty hard stuff," she said.

'A mini-hell'
"There is definitely an issue here at Wilson," said Michele Zawilla, coordinator of the Student Assistance Program at Wilson High School.
In October one student wandered around all night because he had no place to go; another boy admitted to sleeping in parks, Zawilla said.
"It was like being in a mini-hell," said a senior at Wilson who had to leave home for two months last year due to conflicts with her step-father.
"I had no place to go. I was helpless and couldn't do anything," said the senior. Luckily, a friend from church offered her a place to stay.
Several times a year, Zawilla has students who have been kicked out of the house yet their parents are making no effort to get them back. She's been coordinator for three years.
At Reading High, Bob Tulanowski, SAP coordinator for seven years, said he sees two or three homeless students every year.
Right now he knows of one student living in a hotel, one at a shelter and another "doubled up" with a fellow student's family.
At Kutztown High School, there are no "homeless students" per se, said Karen Vymazal, a guidance counselor who shares oversight of the school SAP with another counselor.
"It seems like we have a small handful of students, but they move in with a friend. From their standpoint, it's very tenuous, but they are cared for," Vymazal said.
Invisible kids
Teens lose their homes due to poverty, poor parenting, sexual and substance abuse, aging out of foster care and conflict over sexual orientation.
Or it could be one fight with a parent.
Minors are considered runaways if they stay away for as little as one night without parents knowing where they are. Then there are "throwaways" whose parents ask or tell them to leave.
"It seems like our students just have so much more baggage," Zawilla said. The Wilson SAP helped one homeless student in September and three in October, she said.
And the homelessness that counselors like Zawilla and Tulanowski see may be just the tip of a hidden problem.
"There are definitely more, that don't come to the SAP," said Tulanowski of Reading High, which offers support groups at school. Consent of parents is required for a student to attend a group, and reaching parents is difficult, Tulanowski said.
Students are bouncing among relatives until they run out of people to crash with, said Zawilla.
"Students think it will be easier, but once they get out, they see bouncing around is not easier," Zawilla said.
For some, the constant moving couch jumping seems the only way to cope with a parent or other guardian who has mental health or substance abuse problems.
"It kind of sucked," the Reading grad said about life with his mother. "She didn't have a job for like six years," he said. Meanwhile, he held a job, and went to school.
"It was really bad," he said.
Still, he said, "I really wasn't homeless."
Finding a safe place
The Reading grad spent lots of time at a church youth group he discovered in ninth grade. His mom lost her house and he had to switch schools. Friends were his lifeline.
"I went to Glad Tidings (Assembly of God, West Lawn.) It felt like more of a home there," he said. "It cleared my mind. I would just go there and just feel at home at Glad Tidings. It made me feel at home."
But not all homeless teens find such a resource.
There is a big gap in services for a Berks teen without a safe place to live. A teen can enter the county's Children & Youth Services system, Miller Beck said.
"Sometimes that's not what's needed ... and not what a youth wants," she said.
Creating a shelter was among the answers discussed by area advocates at the homeless youth conference Nov. 8-9 at Reading Sheraton.
"Our theory is to remove them from the home and give a cooling off period to the student and the parents," said Melanie Holland, president of Driven Ministries, a non-profit group she runs out of her Spring Township home. She's taken in several teens over the years who had nowhere else to go.
The goal of a shelter would be to patch things up between teens and parents, and get the student back home. Holland is looking at buildings for a proposed shelter.
Tulanowski said he is not sure teens would go to a shelter, but getting them connected with counseling and caseworkers is critical.
"I hung out at a friend's house," the Reading grad said. "Counseling can only do so much."
But there's hope for the future, as he is repairing his relationship with his mom.
"She asks what I'm going to do with my life," he said.

   
         


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