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Homelessness' troubling shift

By Harriet McDonald Chris was given up for foster care when he was only 3. His mother was a drug addict, his father an alcoholic. He says he was lucky: He was taken in by a loving woman who gave him a good home. But she died when Chris was 12.

By Harriet McDonald

Chris was given up for foster care when he was only 3. His mother was a drug addict, his father an alcoholic. He says he was lucky: He was taken in by a loving woman who gave him a good home. But she died when Chris was 12.

At 14, he began using marijuana. Eventually, he was on the streets, selling pills and smoking pot as often as eight times a day.

Now 23, Chris lived on the streets or bounced around among relatives for years. He is part of a new, young generation of homeless men. The Doe Fund, the organization I work for, has been encountering more like him lately in Philadelphia and New York, where we have been working with the homeless for nearly 25 years.

Our average client in both cities has traditionally been in his mid- to late 30s. But the men who have come to us for help in the last year or two have been much younger, in their early to mid-20s. And, if it's possible, they're even less prepared to live independently.

These young men have few skills. They are less likely than our older clients to have high school diplomas or the equivalent. They generally lack role models, especially male role models, and have never lived independently. Many have never known the love, guidance, and support of a parent or other sympathetic adult. Most have never held a real job.

"I never really worked in my entire life, besides odd jobs and under the table," Chris said. "I never had the structure of a day-to-day job, and I never saved money."

Vastly unprepared

Although the crack epidemic peaked two decades ago, the social disorder it produced - particularly through addicted young mothers giving up their children - is still painfully evident on the streets of Philadelphia and other major American cities. People who were abandoned as toddlers and preschoolers are now in their 20s, having spent their childhoods being shuttled among relatives or foster homes. They were pushed out into the world, usually in their late teens, vastly unprepared.

But they are still young, and they can be saved. They desperately want to be. But it will require commitment.

Nonprofit organizations like the Doe Fund have learned how to address the chaos in which many of these young men grew up. We know how to help them move from homelessness and despair to self-reliance and optimism.

Our clients live with us for eight months to a year in residential centers in Philadelphia and New York. They are drug-tested continually. They are paid to work in our enterprises, and they attend classes to learn how to use computers, interview for jobs, and more. They learn the skills and develop the attitudes that lead to real private-sector jobs. Our motto: Work works.

Chris came to us nearly a year ago. During his time as a resident of our center on Bainbridge Street, he learned to report to work on time, get along with others, and be accountable. By cleaning streets and sidewalks in our Ready, Willing and Able program, he earned money and saved some of it. He has been surrounded by positive influences, including strong male role models, and has remained drug-free.

In September, Chris was hired by Whole Foods to do maintenance work. A few weeks ago, he moved into his own apartment for the first time. Looking back, he said that if he had remained on his former path, he probably wouldn't be alive.

Scarred by turmoil

The Doe Fund and other nonprofits that have shown an ability to help people transform their lives need support to grow. Otherwise, more young people will be condemned to life on the street.

Mayor Nutter and the city have made a significant new commitment to some of our most distressed young people. The city has leased a building on Bainbridge Street for the Doe Fund, just a few doors from where we've been working with homeless men for a decade. When renovations are complete, we will have more office and community space, as well as a larger kitchen for a program training men for jobs in the culinary arts. We will be able to expand our efforts, especially for young people, and to increase the number of homeless people we support and employ.

Young men like Chris are scarred by the emotional turmoil they were raised in, and they often do not understand how to access the opportunities available to them. They need considerable assistance to become responsible, productive adults. And they deserve it.

"People always say kids are angry these days, but they're really hurt," Chris said. "I'm hurt. But I'm trying to turn that hurt into motivation and become someone."