(Photo via facebook.com/PeoplesEmergencyCenter)
As 2018 begins, Philly continues the fight to end homelessness for teens and young adults through collaboration and advocacy.
One emerging theme that coincides with the recent release of the Voices of Youth Count report is that partnering with youth in initiatives to fight homelessness can yield better and more thorough results in identifying and defining this issue.
Locally, the Voices of Youth Count initiative found 569 unhoused young people ages 13 to 25 on one single night in August 2016. For the 2015-2016 school year, the School District of Philadelphia identified over 5,600 students who were housing insecure and attending class. Nationally, estimates of youth homelessness hover at around 4.2 million homeless young people, up from 1.7 million in 1999.
For agencies and programs that serve young people struggling with homelessness, what will you do this year to authentically partner with young people in the fight to end youth homelessness? Will you listen to both criticisms and successes equally? Will you create real infrastructure to build youths’ capacities for advocacy work? Will you invite youth to collaborate in program development, research initiatives, or practice considerations?
Da’Quan Wilson is a young leader who has recently begun advocacy work to benefit other young people who have experienced homelessness. As a community connector in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia at People’s Emergency Center, Da’Quan maintains close relationships with youth and elders in his neighborhood as he works to build solidarity within his community.
I sat with him to discuss how younger generations can be valuable partners in the fight to end youth homelessness in Philadelphia:
1. Who are you? What do you do?
My Name is Da’Quan Wilson, from North Philly, and I’m 22 years old. I work at People’s Emergency Center as a community connector. Recently we have been working on a project called Art Place Making, which is collaboration between young people, Traction Company and the 16th District police station, with the hopes to build more respect between youth and police in the community.
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2. What do you want people to know about youth who experience homelessness?
It really depends on that particular youth’s situation. But what I can say is that the majority of the time it is not the youth’s fault for the situation that they are in.
In my case, I was in a toxic household. My mother had been working as a chef until she got injured, which sunk her into a depression and messed up the household’s finances. Utilities were always off, food became scarce. There were already a lot of people living in the house, and there was always drama, fighting, violence, neighbors calling the cops on the home. I was always the “good boy” and at 16, I was head of the household, paying bills, trying to fix things. I had a job since I was in the eighth grade. Unless there was school, there was not a summer I didn’t work. Being in poverty made me that way.
I started helping my mother one time and it continued. I was 16 when I first got kicked out, but officially kicked out a week before I left for college because of I fight I had with my mom’s step-sons. Between 16 and 18 I was back and forth, between friends’ houses, my girlfriend’s house. There was a time in high school I was living in a cemetery. I stayed in the cemetery because I was familiar with it, and because I didn’t want anyone to know I was homeless.
I don’t like to talk about it, but I did come a long way. It taught me a lot about independence.
3. What do people think about young people? What do people think about homeless young people?
People think that young people are dumb, wild and brainless. When people say “this generation” they judge all youth based on what they see about youth in the media instead of what the youth in front of them may be voicing.
But homeless youth is a different story. To adults, when you’re homeless they think you didn’t listen to your guardian or you did something wrong, and that’s not fair. In my situation the conflict I had with my mom did not start with me not following the rules, it started with my mother losing her job and us not having enough money and room in the house to go around.
4. Why do older people think these things?
Adults think these things is because they are simply just judging off of their own experience of being the average kid. When this has happened to me, I have felt judgement from older people as though I have no experiences that are valuable, and no wisdom to share. These adults have not experienced what youth like me have gone through. They didn’t have the type of parental conflict that would lead to permanent effects in their life.
Conflicts with my mom affected my credit score, school, my mental health. Just in Mantua, young people witness a lot of crime and violence and they keep it to themselves for safety reasons. Adults who may not have experienced this environment may judge young people for not speaking up, but they don’t know there are real dangers of “doing the right thing” in our community.
Not every youth has the luxury of a safe community or a trusted guardian taking care of them, making sure that they have a roof over their head and are properly fed. In my case, I handled those responsibilities myself.
5. Why is it important for youth to be involved in work to fight for fair housing for young people?
It is important for youth to be a part of this movement because it empowers other youth. It shows other youth that someone in similar shoes made it through and is working to help others.
Also, how are you going to have programs and services “for youth” but not have youth involved in their development? If only adults are developing solutions, youth might be like, “How do I know that will benefit me, or that this actually works?” Solutions may fit what adults think might help youth, but might not actually help the issue.
6. What is a solution or part of a solution to youth homelessness that you have been thinking about?
One part of the solution to youth homelessness is to continue studying why so many youth are homeless or running away from home. This will give data on what happened before the youth became homeless, who were they living with, and what was it like living in that environment. Basically, we need to continue to get more details on the problems that teens and youth deal with daily.
7. What are the barriers to those solutions?
Right now I am working with the Community Connectors to carry out a survey to young people in the Mantua area around their feelings of safety in the neighborhood as part of the Mantua Youth Violence Prevention/Intervention Strategy.
I have found that many youth don’t want to open up and say what they have been through because of trauma. Many youth have no one to trust, no one willing to listen and not judge. Employing trustworthy young people to carry out research can help youth be more willing to open up about their experiences.
8. What would our city look or feel like if young people dealing with housing insecurity were supported and housed?
It would restore hope, determination and drive amongst this generation. As a Black young person, you sometimes feel like you’re in a trapped box. You’re young, you don’t have a mentor, don’t know your direction yet. Having a safe place to go might help young people recover from that feeling.
Philadelphia would be bigger because youth would not be locked up. There would be more Philly youth in the universities and colleges and trade schools. It would shift the economy so that young people have access to opportunities instead of just college students visiting from other states. There might be less of a need for emergency services because young people would be more stable.
9. What is one accomplishment you have had in the past year?
An accomplishment that I have achieved was that I recently moved into my first apartment, something that I have been patiently waiting for and aiming to get for a long time. Renting rooms with different people has prepared me for living on my own — I learned how to clean, manage utilities and conserve resources, go food shopping for needs instead of wants. I learned to manage my sneaker habit and priorities my needs.
It’s hard having to come to these conclusions without any help because it’s a lot of pressures on me all at once. Me being the person I am, I won’t ask for help, my childhood taught me not to depend on people.
10. What are some future goals you are working on?
All I know so far is that I am going to change the world.
I want to build my own community where there is no discrimination, there is empowerment, all the races coming together like they are brother and sister and helping one another. I want to take natural ways of living and bringing it back to my community. This would be my legacy.
I also want to restructure how the government is set up so that structure relevant to how we are living now in 2018. For example, right now the economy is only focused on profit. I would like to change it so that could be focused on growing and thinking about the future and the next generation. I call it “preparation for the next” because we’re not going to be here forever and we have to think about who is coming after us.
If you would like to learn more about how to get involved in the fight for fair housing for youth and families, please follow us at @PAHomelessYouth, @PECCaresPhilly or join People Emergency Center’s policy listserv by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more perspectives on youth collaboration and youth homelessness, check out the following resources:
- Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services
- True Colors Fund
- “Youth Who Help Reformers Must Be Treated As Partners, Not Tokens“
- “A Hidden Population: Youth Homelessness Is on the Rise“
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