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Pulling back the curtain on trauma faced by Philadelphia’s homeless youth

Without many skills or resources, housing insecure and homeless youth face endless daily uncertainty about where they will lay their head that night.

Cynthia Blocker, now 22, has been housing insecure since she was 14. Blocker will speak at "In Our Backyards: Pulling Back the Curtain on Homeless Youth Trauma," a free day-long conference at Temple University on Nov. 2.
Cynthia Blocker, now 22, has been housing insecure since she was 14. Blocker will speak at "In Our Backyards: Pulling Back the Curtain on Homeless Youth Trauma," a free day-long conference at Temple University on Nov. 2.Read moreTylisa Johnson / Staff

At 14, Cynthia Blocker came home one day to find her belongings in boxes outside her house and the door's locks changed. She left her mother and her home that night, and would never return.

For the next six years, at night Blocker slept on benches, in parks, at Rittenhouse Square, at the clothespin near City Hall, at part-time jobs after hours, outside the city's Municipal Services building, and on friend's and family member's couches.  During the day, she attended Charter High School for Architecture and Design, or CHAD, where she studied fashion design, juggling classwork, service jobs and hair braiding — her side hustle to save money for an apartment.

At the time, "I felt lost," said Blocker,  now 22. "It was worrisome. I had a lot of anxiety, anxious about where I was going to sleep or what I was going to eat the next day. I felt very insecure."

Nowadays, Blocker sleeps at a family friend's home she shares with her dad and his friend. Still, worry that her home could be gone at any minute looms.

Like Blocker, hundreds of homeless Philadelphia youth shuffle from place to place each day, often exposed to fear, anxiety, and stress as they try to survive the streets alone. On Friday, educators, advocates, researchers, and current and former homeless youth will convene at Temple University for "In Our Backyards: Pulling Back the Curtain on Homeless Youth Trauma," a free day-long conference to address nuanced experiences faced by today's homeless youth and the resulting trauma. There, Blocker will speak on a panel about her experiences.

The fourth annual conference will be hosted by the Life After Trauma Organization (LATO),  a Philadelphia nonprofit whose mission is to create awareness and approaches to prevent and recover from trauma. The conference opens at 8:30 a.m. inside Temple's Howard Gittis Student Center and will include youth talks and presentations, a resource panel, and discussions focused on the layered experiences.

Philadelphia psychologist Clara Whaley Perkins, president and founder of LATO, said the goal is to figure out what needs to be done "once [youth]  have a secure home to begin … to help [them] recover from the effects of having gone through that trauma."

In January at least 300 young people, ages 24 and under, were counted on a single night  according to the city. Of those youths, nearly 80 percent were African American.

To much of the public, "young adults are invisible as homeless people," said Liz Hersh, director of the city's Office of Homeless Services.

"When people are on the street, everybody pays attention to it," but many times youths aren't on the streets, she said, which means their experiences of having the foundations of their lives rocked often fly below the radar.

Hersh said that through the Young Adult Leadership Committee at her office,  youth integrate their voices and experiences into the office's efforts.

Most recently, the group took part in an April 2018 needs assessment of the city's homeless youth, which detailed the experiences of those who have been homeless or housing insecure.

People who are housing insecure may struggle to pay housing costs, move often, or live in overcrowded housing, while homeless people lack housing.

The assessment found that "there is an overall lack of youth-dedicated supportive housing programs" and that couch surfing, as Blocker did, is a near-universal experience.

Whaley Perkins said youths who move between foster homes and homelessness often experience abuse along the way, which creates compounded trauma that later manifests in various ways, such as anxiety and insecurity.

 "You go from just living, which is a normal childhood experience, going through the normal developmental changes, to surviving, and that is a major stress for a child, for young people. "From a neuroscience perspective, it's what happens in the brain," she said.

"The stress of not knowing, the uncertainty from day to day to day, at 15 we do not have the capacity to cope with that kind of uncertainty day in and day out."

Youths mainly become homeless because of money problems, housing instability, or family issues, research shows. Many, like Blocker, leave home after years of abuse, parental neglect, or after coming out as LGBTQ to their parents.

Once youths become homeless, the challenge to survive overshadows other parts of their lives, such as school, and many times causes them to do things they normally wouldn't or to turn to coping mechanisms, such as drugs and alcohol.

Without skills, resources, or training, youths face endless daily uncertainty, with schools becoming a refuge, though many times  they struggle to succeed, Whaley Perkins said. When school lets out, they're once again left to figure out where they will sleep.

Often with housing-insecure or homeless youths, Whaley Perkins said, people believe that with the right support — a home, care, and love — symptoms youths show, such as anxiety or insecurity, should go away. But they don't, she said, because the youths face long-term trauma.

"When they experienced their trauma, their brain was still developing, and so it developed in a certain way in response to the trauma that they were subjected to and that has long-term effects," she said. "Many times, trauma that comes out of the housing insecurity is not something that people recognize."

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city's push towards economic justice. See all of our reporting at