Jamichael Lewis was beaten daily. His mother, a drug addict, had a hard time caring for him and his siblings, and his older brothers took their aggression out on him. Lewis was a victim of sibling abuse — the daily beatings left bruises, cuts and head injuries. Sometimes he was beaten so severely his vision blurred. But the physical trauma was nothing compared to the emotional anguish and loneliness he felt growing up.
"You know what it's like to be beaten to physical exhaustion?" said Lewis, now 24. "Until all you can do is go to sleep? That's what I went through."
Now a resident of Covenant House New Orleans, Lewis was one of many young people who shared their stories at the fourth annual Covenant House sleep-out, an event held each November to increase awareness about homeless youth. Today Lewis is doing well and working on his goal of becoming a graphic designer. But his story is typical of what happens when children are kicked out, rejected or abused at home. In the New Orleans area, many of them end up at Covenant House — along with young people who have turned 18 and "aged out" of foster care.
Though the city has touted its progress combating homelessness in general, the number of young homeless people in New Orleans is increasing, according to Covenant House Executive Director Jim Kelly.
In the last four years, the shelter's average daily census has more than tripled, from 45 to 139 kids a night. Recently, the center has been averaging more than 150 youth a night. Of those, Kelly said roughly 30 percent have either aged out of foster care or left home because of negligence or abuse. He said many leave because they feel they don't have a choice.
"It's really tough," Kelly said, adding that about 70 to 80 percent of the kids have been physically or sexually abused. "They're running away from abuse. They're aging out of foster care, and they're coming out of (Orleans Parish Prison)."
According to Kelly, the uptick in emergency services reflects a bigger problem in New Orleans when it comes to homelessness among the young. Four years ago, about 400 youth ages 16 to 22 went through Covenant House's doors. The number has risen every year since, and this year the center expects to provide services for 750 to 800 young people.
In August, UNITY of Greater New Orleans said the city had reduced homelessness by 85 percent from a post-Hurricane Katrina high in 2007, when 11,619 people in Orleans and Jefferson parishes lived on the streets, in abandoned buildings or in shelters. That number now is 1,703, compared to 2,051 before Katrina. Overall, New Orleans' per capita rate of homelessness remains higher than that of most large cities. In 2014, 46.9 out of every 10,000 people in the city were homeless.
Kelly said it's important to designate adults under the age of 22 as "youth" and group them alongside children and teenagers when talking about homelessness. That's because, although most laws recognize adulthood as age 18, emerging science about brain development suggests that maturity isn't fully reached until about age 25. According to Kelly, that means the trauma most of the youth at Covenant House have experienced — abuse, drug addiction, post-traumatic stress — has lasting effects and explains why they cycle in and out of the justice system and are chronically homeless.
"Let's talk about what leads to homeless youth," Kelly said. "What turns the spigots off? How do you stop that?"
At 1:30 a.m., someone somewhere is screaming.
The sound echoes off the walls and concrete on N. Rampart Street. About 150 adults lining the sidewalks and courtyard of Covenant House stir in their sleeping bags. Some pull their possessions a little closer. The people sleeping on that section of the street aren't homeless; they include a city councilman, judges, journalists and fundraisers.
- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- Cole Williamson and Becca Soubble, both 18, are among homeless youth in New Orleans.
"It's like I told my son: everyone wants to be safe, but everyone isn't," New Orleans City Council President Jason Williams said as he prepared to sleep outside with his 9-year-old son, Graham. "There's a lot of kids who struggle just to find a safe place, every year, every day."
"Lewis" (who declined to use his last name) was one of those children. Like many suffering from abuse at home, Lewis entered Louisiana's foster care system, which sees more than 4,000 children each year, ranging in age from infants to teenagers.
For awhile, Lewis said, he got lucky. He was placed in a good home with a woman who treated him like her own child. He began to heal. Then, when Lewis was 14, Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures upended everything. His foster mother, who was in poor health, died from gangrene.
"I lost the most important person in my life," Lewis said.
He bounced around, went back to his mother, then lived alone a trailer park. When Lewis was 16, his foster sister said he could live with her, but that wasn't permanent either; his mother begged to get him back and despite her negligent behavior, Lewis was forced to return.
According to the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the first goal of foster care is to reunite a child with his or her biological family. Foster parents often only "maintain" the child in a safe environment until the parents are ready to resume responsibility and custody — or until an alternative permanent solution is found.
Lewis lived with his mother, who had slipped back into drug abuse, for three years. During that time, he lived with no lights, food or water. But it was too late for him to go back to the foster system.
"Nobody knew, not even the neighbors," he said. "School was all I had. It was the only thing that kept me going."
He focused all his energy into his schoolwork and graduated high school at 19 with straight A's. But he didn't know where to go, so he turned to Covenant House. Now he's working on gaining his independence. He wants to design video games.
"There's so much you can do with life," he said. "And really, so little time."
For many kids, that permanent solution never materializes. Sometimes, as with Lewis, parents get their kids back, even if they shouldn't. And then there was his age. By the time Lewis went back to his mother, he was 17. Although he technically was still young enough to be in foster care, statistics show the likelihood was slim that he would find a safe, permanent home before he aged out of the system at 18.
- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- Jayda Martin (center) holds her baby Journey Davis.
In 2013, Louisiana ended the Young Adult Program from DCFS, which helped people leaving foster care find transitional housing. The program, funded by $1.3 million from the state's general fund, was among several budgeting casualties of Gov. Bobby Jindal. When operating, it helped young adults who, through no fault of their own, were in the custody of the state and would be released at 18 without a place to live, transportation, higher education or basic necessities. When that program ended, more than 100 people aging out of foster care suddenly were left without a safety net.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of New Orleans provides support to abused and neglected children. The organization currently cares for eight clients who are 18 to 20 years old who aged out of foster care. The list is growing.
"It's going to steadily go up," said CASA Executive Director Joy Bruce. Following the dissolution of the state's Young Adult Program, CASA clients who have aged out of foster care don't lose their CASA advocates.
"Our first kids are about to turn 21," she said. "We don't really have a cut off for them. ... We're going to keep adding to them as more kids age out."
Children aging out of foster care is a growing concern, according to the organization Children's Rights. In 2013, more than 23,000 young people — whom states failed to reunite with their families or place in permanent homes — left foster care simply because they were too old to remain.
The percentage of youth that age out of foster care increased from 8 percent in 2003 to 10 percent in 2013. "As time goes by, the prospects for landing in safe, loving, permanent homes grow dimmer for foster youth," the organization explained.
That's one reason why Jane Helire, in charge of educational outreach with Covenant House New Orleans, said that if children 16 and older come to Covenant House, the state allows them to stay in the shelter rather than go back through the system.
Right now, Lewis is a success story. But that isn't always the case. Tens of thousands of people in the U.S. have been left to fend for themselves after aging out of foster care, according to Kevin Ryan, president of the national Covenant House, and journalist Tina Kelley, co-authors of the book Almost Home.
- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- A Covenant House resident tells his story to supporters.
Ryan and Kelley found that 37 percent of former foster children experienced homelessness by age 24. About 60 percent of the young men who become too old to stay in foster care are convicted of a crime by their mid-20s, and 75 percent of young women who age out are on public assistance.
On Jan. 26, the annual "Homeless Point-in-Time Count" for Orleans and Jefferson parishes surveyed the streets and homeless programs. UNITY found that 280 homeless people, or about 16 percent of the total homeless population, were youth ages 18 to 25. Of those, 131 youth were living without any shelter at all.
The number seems to remain stagnant from 2014, when UNITY counted 290 homeless young adults in Orleans and Jefferson. But UNITY found that since last year, the number of homeless youth in the New Orleans area had spiked — up 21 percent from 2013. More than half — 57 percent — lived in some sort of shelter like Covenant House.
"I think there's no question that adult homelessness is down," said Covenant House's Kelly. "But homeless kids, they're much harder to find. They're not the kind of homeless you're going to see under the bridge. They're gonna be in an abandoned building, or they're going to sleep with someone to find shelter. They figure it out."
One CASA client aged out of foster care during her junior year of high school. She couch-surfed for 14 months, graduated in May and two weeks later moved into a college dorm for a summer semester — her best chance at getting housing. Fewer than 3 percent of people who age out of foster care will receive a bachelor's degree, according to the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care. And applying for housing assistance like Section 8 vouchers is just that — an application that is added to dozens from other people seeking housing.
"Counting on college to be your housing plan is very difficult," Bruce said. "Housing in college is not optimal. If you end up in a dorm, you end up homeless over the holidays or you pay extra. College has been our best bet. If we can figure out how to get a kid into college, we can figure out how to get them an apartment or dorm. ... For the ones who haven't, it's Covenant House — but that is homelessness."
The state's temporary housing program, which was to help fill gaps left in the wake of the Young Adult Program, opened only 25 slots — for the entire state.
"A list is not a house," Bruce said. "A list of 25 at the state level is not a viable option. A Section 8 list is not a viable option. There are no transitional housing programs. There are no housing assistance programs. There is nothing for these kids. ... When I say I have a kid who's couch-surfing, (housing organizations) say, 'We can't help. You can drop her on a street corner or check her into Covenant House, but until she's one of those two things, we can't offer our services to her.' She's not homeless enough."
- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- City Council President Jason Williams helps his son Graham prepare to sleep outside.
Covenant House helps some youth find steady jobs and sets them up with a monthly plan to help them save enough for their own apartments. Last year, more than half of the youth under Kelly's care found a stable, safe and secure place to live that wasn't a shelter.
Finding housing also is the biggest challenge facing Boys Town Louisiana, which provides care to more than 7,000 children and families each year. Boys Town's Family Home Program has several New Orleans locations and offers supportive care to children who survive abuse, abandonment or neglect. Boys Town's Care Coordination Program, which started last year, is among four of the organization's programs to help youth transition from foster care to independence with support services and financial assistance. There are 18 people in the program's first year.
"It's a big undertaking," said Sonya Brown, Boys Town Louisiana's community engagement coordinator. Boys Town plans for 20 people in the program, and next year the roster will climb to 40 or even 60.
"Housing is hard," Brown said. "We can find people to donate food, we can find people to even donate items for a young person who has an apartment. Finding the actual housing is a big problem."
Brown — who grew up in and out of foster care, often sleeping on friends' and relatives' couches or spending the night in hospitals — also works with schools to ensure students in foster care are staying on track. If they're not college-bound, Boys Town can write referrals to the Louisiana Army National Guard Youth Challenge Program, which can provide financial aid, education and job assistance to those who complete the program.
But Bruce said that program can seem heavy-handed "for a kid who hasn't done anything wrong." Still, the success stories of college-bound foster care graduates obscure the reality they face in depending on a college campus for a safe place to call home.
"They still see how thin a line they're walking," Bruce said. "If their housing is for college, one bad grade, one missed financial aid opportunity, one person who didn't agree to cosign for you, and they're homeless. ... There's not this gulf of a difference between kids who wind up homeless and those who don't."
Nationally, Louisiana ranked very low — 35th out of 50 states — for child homelessness, with nearly 40,000 youth reported homeless in the state in 2013, according to a 2014 report by the National Center on Family Homelessness. But when assessing the risk for child homelessness, the state dropped to 47 out of 50, largely because nearly one-third of the state's children live in poverty.
- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- Every year, public officials and others sleep on the sidewalk outside Covenant House to raise wareness of youth homelessness.
Though advocates say youth homelessness in New Orleans and the state overall is a problem, it reflects a bigger crisis: Children are simply being left behind.
In 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness unveiled Opening Doors, which aimed to end chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015 and family and youth homelessness by 2020.
In January, Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced the city — working with a host of federal, state and local agencies — effectively had "eliminated" homelessness among veterans in New Orleans. It's the first city to do so, answering a call from first lady Michelle Obama to end homelessness among military veterans across the U.S.
Children and families have not received the same attention.
In 2013, the crisis reached an all-time high, with one out of every 30 children under the age of 18 in the U.S. living in shelters, on the streets or in camps, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.
"As much ... as we have this moral obligation to our veterans, it should be even higher to our foster kids," Bruce said. "They became our responsibility through absolutely no will of their own. They had no say in the matter, and now we've ignored them."
In June, state Rep. Robert Billiot, D-Westwego, passed a resolution in the state Legislature creating the Task Force on Youth Aging Out of Foster Care. The group has met every other Tuesday since August. Brown, Bruce and Kelly sit on the task force. (New Orleans' Children and Youth Planning Board also created a Task Force on Youth Aging Out of Foster Care.) The statewide group must present a report to legislators by Feb. 1, 2016, outlining the fallout of halting the Young Adult Program and the needs of statewide organizations — whether that means reinstating the program or building something different.
"Everything is on the table," Bruce said. "We agreed at the very beginning we'd consider everything and anything."
"The report doesn't guarantee the program will be reinstated," Brown said, "but we're giving it a shot and hoping for the best."