AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Austin continues efforts to address what the city has recognized as a “public health and safety crisis” regarding homelessness, community groups are focusing in on how to help the youngest Austinites experiencing homelessness. 

Leaders from Caritas of Austin, LifeWorks, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) and SAFE Alliance will gather Wednesday to talk about youth homelessness and a new program to help young people without long-term housing. 

It started when Austin was awarded a $5.2 million dollar grant from HUD nearly two years ago. The funding has only just started to trickle in as of October. The coalition of community groups involved have been launching their first efforts with that funding including: a new transitional housing program, a program to identify youth who are at increased risk of falling into homelessness, and rapid rehousing. 

Their efforts focus on serving youth between the ages of 16 and 24, but depending on the level of need they can also provide help to people in their late 20’s. 

LifeWorks partnered with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago to get data on youth homelessness in Austin, they’ve used information from the ECHO homelessness count to keep those numbers current. Susan McDowell, the executive director of LifeWorks said the data showed that more than 600 youth experience homelessness every year in Austin and 78 percent of them have been in the foster care system, the juvenile justice system, or both. 

“Most importantly the community needs to understand the issue that is largely invisible in the community,” McDowell said, noting that it’s tough to see the young people who are experiencing homelessness because they are often camping in tents or going from couch. 

But McDowell believes it is important to focus on youth in homelessness because guiding them onto a path of long term success stops what can be a vicious cycle. 

“Tonight LifeWorks will shelter and house somewhere around 150 youth,” she said.”But we know we needed to grow that and grow that aggressively to reach our goal of making youth homelessness rare, brief, and un-recurring.”

McDowell said that since the HUD funding has come in, they’ve housed one young person through the program. 

Last year, LifeWorks housed 37 youth and their children, but did so without any HUD funding.  LifeWorks hopes to house 6 youth with the HUD funding by Thanksgiving and to house 90 youth in the next year. LifeWorks owns several apartments that are used for this housing, and they are looking to build more. 

Stories of youth homelessness

21-year-old CJ Meserole just heard about the new program using the HUD funding, he is homeless and currently stays at the ARCH. 

“With the rapid rehousing and the initiative of LifeWorks, I think that’s going to be really cool and especially because I can get my life started already,” Meserole said, hopeful that he will qualify to get housed through the program. 

He has been homeless on and off since the age of 17, at first he got kicked out of his home, but later on he was left homeless when the family member he was living with passed away. Finding a job in Texarkana where he was living proved difficult, so he traveled to Austin in hopes of more opportunity. 

“You gotta learn from people that are out there that are very risky, especially being my age,  being taken advantage of would be very easy,” Meserole said. “Finding food, shelter water something like that, where to shower, is very different. ” 

Without guidance, navigating small things in life can be challenging, Meserole said. For example, he was showering using a sink at a park and only learned after the fact that doing so was illegal.

Right now Meserole is looking for housing, but he also noted that things like backpacks, phone chargers, and help filling out paperwork can make a world of difference for youth experiencing homelessness. 

Living at the ARCH and encountering older individuals who aren’t sure how achieve a life outside of homelessness has made Meserole worried. 

“It’s definitely a self-fulfilling prophecy, you get stuck in this cycle and its a re-occurring loop, and I see it all the time with people that are older,” he said. 

“That’s what I’m so afraid of happening to me,” he said. “It sucks to see other people now who were my age coming through [homelessness]  being 60 and still stuck.” 

He noted that many people don’t realize he is homeless, they assume he’s not because he walks alone and he is young. 

“We’re outcasts especially as homeless people,” Meserole said. 

“I’d like that to kind of change, the outlook on people’s homelessness,” he added. 

Ultimately he wants to go to college, but he needs to get stable housing first. 

20-year-old Lyric Wardlow was able to get housing on her own after spending much of her childhood in homelessness, but she knows many other people who’ve been homeless as children haven’t been as fortunate. 

“For youth that are the same age as me, that sometimes, it’s hard to actually overcome some of the barriers that they face in life,” Wardlow said. “So for youth that are going through stuff, it’s very very hard to leave the things that you’re going through behind when that seems like the only thing you have to hold on to.”

Wardlow became homeless around the age of 9, she said her mother’s hoarding tendencies got out of control to the point that her family was kicked out of their house. She bounced back and forth between different shelters afterward. Wardlow recalled how difficult it was trying to make friends and do well in school while coming home to the shelter homes she shared with multiple other families. 

Wardlow said she struggled to enroll in an Austin high school because some schools wouldn’t take her in because she didn’t have a home address. Ultimately, her education was so disjointed she wound up dropping out of high school. 

“If you want to have a healthy life for a youth, you have to take away some of the stressors they have to go through every day,” she explained. 

When she turned 18 she was able to get a place on her own. Wardlow is now on the path to higher education, she takes classes at ACC and is helping with the discussion of the new plan to end youth homelessness in Austin. 

She’s excited about the HUD money and believes youth who’ve experienced homelessness need to be part of the conversation on how that effort will continue. 

“There’s definitely a lot more steps to go, but I think that the fact that we’re starting this and trying to take that first step is gigantic in the progress that we need to make,” she said. 

She also hopes the public understands that children and young adults who don’t have a stable place to sleep are in need of support. 

“Just keep that mindset of, they need help and they don’t need your pity,” Wardlow said. “Just say, ‘this youth is going through something and I want to be there for them and I want to help them as much as I can and make sure they don’t have to go through this anymore,’ because being homeless is something that we shouldn’t be going through in this 21st century.”