By LESLIE MODICA (email@example.com)
Ashley Brimberry is 19, but has never taken a driving test.
When she turned 16 three years ago, she was bouncing between homes, and she said her parents weren’t around to make sure she went to school, let alone teach her to drive.
She never went shopping with her mother for a prom dress, and she never had a Sweet Sixteen party. In fact, after years of no-shows at birthday parties, she had given up.
Now, her friends are just forging out on their own. But the Dover teen’s already been there for years.
Brimberry is an “unaccompanied youth” — a legal way of saying she is a teenager without parents. And although she doesn’t usually see it that way, she is classified as homeless because she does not have a stable and permanent place to live.
Brimberry’s story is unique, but her situation is not. According to a 2002 study published by the U.S. Department of Justice, there are more than 1.6 million youths without parents nationwide who have been homeless for a period of time.
In New Hampshire, a 2009 survey of 80 percent of the school districts in the state reported 142 unaccompanied youths, according to Lynda Thistle-Elliot, the State Department of Education homeless coordinator.
But she estimates the number severely underreports the size of that population.
For example, she said, a recent survey conducted by outreach workers in Manchester reported that there were more than 200 unaccompanied youth living in that city alone, and she suspects even that number doesn’t represent the full scope of the problem.
In Dover, there are currently three unaccompanied youth enrolled in school and identified by the district. In Rochester, that number is 21.
“It’s more common than I can even get my hands on,” Dover Homeless Liaison Lucinda McKenney said. “I know for a fact there is more.”
Experts agree unaccompanied youth are a notoriously difficult population to track, mainly because they don’t want to be found.
“They are very good at hiding,” McKenney said. “They are scared of being pulled into the foster care system, so they stay with a friend until their welcome wears out and then they go try another. I’ve lost track of them before. They literally disappear overnight.”
Like the overall homeless population, unaccompanied youth represent a cross-section of society who are the victims of typically overlapping forces that pushed them to homelessness.
“It runs the whole gamut,” said Keith Kuenning, the executive director for the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness.
Factors that contribute to adult homelessness are often the same as those that contribute to youth homelessness, such as poverty, lack of affordable housing, low education levels, unemployment, mental illness and substance abuse.
But beyond those factors, teens who become homeless are largely a reflection of family breakdown.
“The dynamic of teenagers is that they find the living condition unacceptable and because they are old enough to somewhat take care of themselves, they have the ability to flee,” Kuenning said.
Often, the driving force for teens who choose to flee their parents is some sort of abuse in the home.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, between 40 and 60 percent of homeless youths are victims of physical abuse, and between 17 and 35 percent are victims of sexual abuse. The statistics don’t differentiate between abuse that occurred before and after the teenager left home.
Demographics of homeless youth also closely mimic those of the adult homeless population, with the exception of a disproportionate representation by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths.
Most studies that seek to identify the actual number of LGBT youth don’t reflect what most experts say they expect are true numbers, however estimates are that one in five homeless youth self-identify as LGBT, or twice the prevalence in the general population, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
GROWING UP FAST
When Brimberry was 7 years old, she said her mother left her father, leaving Brimberry, her older sister and younger brother behind. Although he didn’t physically leave, Brimberry said her father began neglecting his parental responsibilities three years later, leaving Brimberry’s 13-year-old sister to fill the void.
For the next four years Brimberry bounced between living with her father and living with an aunt, until she said both kicked her out and she moved in with her older sister in Dover, who had moved to the area a few years earlier.
She lived with her sister and two roommates and enrolled in her junior year at Dover High School.
“They treated me well and I had my own room, but my sister and I started fighting,” Brimberry said. “Then one time I lied to her and we got in a fist fight, and I decided to move out.”
It was McKenney who helped Brimberry with her next move — into transitional housing.
“It was really scary,” Brimberry said. “It’s so depressing to live by yourself. Trying to grow up fast like that is really, really hard.”
Brimberry is glad the opportunity to live in transitional housing came up when it did to give her a stable place to go to at night and complete homework as she worked toward her eventual high school graduation.
But now, she said, it’s not always easy sharing a house with several other roommates. They all share a kitchen and living room, but they each have their own room. Without locks on the doors, though, Brimberry said her room doesn’t always feel as private as she would like. And at 19, she is hoping to find an apartment as she grows out of the house’s strict rules for things like guest visits.
Eventually, Brimberry wants to go to culinary school to become a pastry chef or chocolatier after discovering her love for baking at the culinary arts program at the Dover High School Career Technical Center. But it’s hard for her to take that leap, and she acknowledged that she sometimes has a hard time believing in herself.
In the meantime, she is hoping to take a bartending class this summer.
In transitional housing, 30 percent of her paycheck earned at her job at Friendly’s goes toward rent and utilities. When she first got there, Brimberry said, she blew through her first few paychecks in typical teenager fashion.
“I don’t even know what I bought,” she said. “No one ever taught me how to budget.”
Since then, she has learned to budget her money better, but even public transportation can get expensive and the money from her $8.50-per-hour job doesn’t stretch far.
“Money has always been my problem,” Brimberry said.
Brimberry makes it clear that she loves her parents. She still keeps in contact with them, and although neither came to her high school graduation in May, Brimberry was still seeking the approval of her parents with her accomplishment.
“I wanted to prove to my dad that I am still worth something,” Brimberry said.
Unlike her peers, though, Brimberry relied heavily on staff at Dover High School — mainly McKenney — for her day-to-day motivation.
“It sucks to not have anyone pat you on the back,” Brimberry said. “I don’t think I would have graduated without McKenney. I would have given up. But she would always say ‘We’re going to be so proud of you when you graduate.’ She was the motivator that kept me going.”
Brimberry still keeps in touch with McKenney, occasionally meeting for lunch or just checking in on the phone, but she still feels the void of not having her own mother or father to rely on.
“I’m always hurt when I think about what my parents haven’t done for me,” Brimberry said. “It’s seems like nobody is there to care.”
Brimberry said she is seeing a therapist for depression and anxiety — two issues that commonly affect homeless teens.
“You always feel alone, I can’t begin to describe what that might feel like,” said Jim Babcock, a Laconia Middle School guidance counselor who has worked with both middle school and high school youth who have either become homeless or at risk of becoming homeless without their parents.
“Who do you go to for advice, when you are sad, when you are happy, when something has happened, when you want to know something?” he said.
Babcock cites a theory by William Glasser, an internationally known psychiatrist, when speaking about the emotional effects of not having parents on teens.
“The theory is that every human being has to feel unequivocably loved by one other human being to be grounded,” Babcock said. “That should be a parent, and the parent should love their kids unequivocably. A kid has to feel that, because if you are attached to one other person, then it is now a home. It’s bigger than individuals. It only takes one other person for someone to feel that way, and just imagine a kid without that one person. Without that one person, they’re homeless in their minds.”
The effects of the absence of that person, and having a role model for basic life skills, often manifest themselves in both friendships and relationships of homeless youths, Babcock said. Specifically, he said homeless teens are often guarded, less trusting, have difficulty making friends and find themselves in destructive relationships.
“They don’t understand how to deal with emotion, they don’t understand how to deal with affection,” Babcock said. “They will look you right in the eye and tell you they have a hard time with relationships, a hard time with trust.”
Brimberry said many of her problems with depression, anxiety and the pressure of having to make it on her own stem from not having her parents there through her adolescence.
A LEGAL VOID
While anybody who is homeless faces an uphill battle, the problem is compounded for teens without parents because of the legal barriers that often stand in their way.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act mandates that schools enroll homeless students, even without legal and medical paperwork. But once they are in school, homeless teens often face another set of problems.
“The weird part about being a teen is we expect kids to be adults by 17, but they don’t have adult rights until they are 18,” said Keith Kuenning, the executive director for the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness.
Although the court system will sentence teenagers for crimes like they are adults, the same systems don’t provide them access to services until they turn 18, Kuenning said, creating what he called a “void” where they can’t sign contracts, access medical care, live in shelters or rent apartments, but they are accountable for crimes.
“It’s this weird kind of purgatory these teenagers live in,” Kuenning said. “It’s like a lifeguard watching someone drowning and you yell ‘When you turn 18 I’ll be there for you!'”