Group works to count, help homeless youth in Orlando area

College student shares her experience of being homeless as child

ORLANDO, Fla. – You see them in the park, walking down the sidewalk or panhandling in the street. Thousands of Central Floridians are struggling with homelessness, including several 13- to 23-year-olds.

News 6 Investigator Adrianna Iwasinski met with a local college student who knows their struggle all too well.

Rebecca grew up homeless.

"For as long as I can remember, we were always unstable," Rebecca said as she looked back on the time she and her mother struggled to find a safe place to sleep. 

She said they bounced around to different trailer parks, motels and homes of family members. At one point, she said they lived out of a car.

"To look back and see how far we came, I'm like, 'Wow, I'm really here. It's, like, really possible to get through it,'" Rebecca said.

She said when she was homeless, it was like living a double life. No one at her school knew, and keeping it a secret is something she said lots of homeless youth are doing now.

"We don't tell anyone," Rebecca said. "We don't go asking for help because then we feel like we'd be judged. Or they'd be, like, 'Oh, that's that homeless girl.'"

She said often it's difficult to tell who is homeless because they try to fit in like everyone else. Many of them have phones and social media accounts and can be found hanging at local parks or bus stops.

Rebecca said they can be seen seeking shelter inside libraries, malls and fast food restaurants, or volunteering at local community centers.

Rebecca said during the day, it would be a little easier to blend in, but at night, reality would hit her.

"Especially during this time, you know, Christmas? We never really had a Christmas or Thanksgiving or anything like that," Rebecca said.

She said despite how difficult her life was, at least she had her mother by her side. Rebecca said she can't imagine what it is like for young people who have no one out there watching out for them.

"My heart goes out to the youths that are by themselves," Rebecca said.

Rebecca said the way she dealt with her homelessness was by joining as many clubs as she could at school and at the community centers, including the Boys and Girls Club, where she was honored for being one of the nation's outstanding kids. 

"I'd stay until they closed. I'd ask if they needed help cleaning up," said Rebecca, remembering that time in her life. "Anything I could do to not have to go 'home.'"

Rebecca said she is one of the lucky ones, since lots of other teens would seek solace in other ways, like getting into abusive relationships or abusing drugs or alcohol. She said some even resorted to a life of prostitution. 

Rebecca said once she and her mom finally got steady jobs, they were finally able to afford a home to call their own. Rebecca, who currently attends college, is studying to be a social worker. She is also interning at the Commission on Homelessness. 

She and dozens of other volunteers hit the streets for three days in October, looking for homeless teens and 20-year-olds who are "hiding" to get a better picture of how many homeless young people are here and to find out what they need if they want to change their situation.

"These are our young people who have left home because they are in crisis," said Shelley Lauten, the CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. "I just can't imagine leaving our children on the streets. We have to figure out better ways to connect them, give them positive role models and connect them back into society in a more productive way." 

Lauten said her agency reached out to experts across the country to help them with the first-ever Voices of Youth count. They even handed out $5 gift cards to encourage homeless teens and 20-year-olds to come forward and share their stories.

"And they were so grateful for a $5 gift card," Lauten said, "because they knew they'd have a place to eat the next night."

Lauten said they teamed up with researchers from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago for the regional count. It will focus specifically on unaccompanied youth ages 13-23 who are living a life of homelessness in the tri-county (Orange, Osceola and Seminole) area surrounding Orlando.

The same group recently did a similar count on homeless students in the Orange County area. The final count for the regional tally is expected to be announced in December.

Both Shelley and Rebecca said for a lot of homeless young people, living on the streets was not their choice.

"They might be gay or bisexual and their family kicked them out," Rebecca said. "Or they have a significant other that their family doesn't approve of and they say you're out."

But Rebecca said she wants to provide the one thing this hidden population really needs: hope.

"Don't be ashamed to tell people about your situation," Rebecca said. "You don't know who you can inspire or who can help you or who you can connect with."

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