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Inside the lives of homeless teens - moving stories of pain and hope from Covenant House.
Almost Home tells the stories of six remarkable young people from across the United States and Canada as they confront life alone on the streets. Each eventually finds his or her way to Covenant House, the largest charity serving homeless and runaway youth in North America. From the son of a crack addict who fights his own descent into drug addiction, to a teen mother reaching for a new life, their stories veer between devastating and inspiring as they each struggle to find a place called home. This book: Includes a foreword by Newark Mayor Cory Booker Shares the personal stories of six homeless youths grappling with issues such as drug addiction, family violence, prostitution, rejection based on sexual orientation, teen parenthood, and aging out of foster care into a future with limited skills and no support system Gives voice to the estimated 1.6 million young people in the United States and Canada who run away or are kicked out of their homes each year Includes stories of firsthand experiences mentoring and working with homeless and troubled youth, and practical suggestions on how to get involved Discusses the root causes of homelessness among young people - and policy recommendations to address them Provides action steps listeners can take to fight youth homelessness and assist individual homeless young people Written by Kevin Ryan, president of Covenant House, and Pulitzer Prize nominee and former New York Times writer Tina Kelley, Almost Home invites us to get to know homeless teens as more than an accumulation of statistics and societal issues. This book gives a human face to a huge but largely invisible problem and offers practical insights into how to prevent homelessness and help homeless youth move to a hopeful future. For instance, one kid in the book goes on to b...
A Son Walks Alone: Paulie’s Story
Soon after Paulie was born, the fates seemed to have it in for him, pulling him from loved ones, beating him up, tearing his families apart, sending him demon after demon to wrestle. When we think of him as a newborn, we imagine softer landings for him. But our respect for Paulie, the teenager, the young man, the champion kick-boxer, the cook who shares his skills, is boundless.
Thirteen-year-old Paulie Robbins sat up in bed, jolted awake by the shaking ground and the bouncing coins on his nightstand. It was yet another tremor in Palmer, Alaska, this one magnitude 4.0, enough to wake him at nearly one thirty one morning in December 1997. He rubbed his face groggily. In disorienting moments like this, he wished his father were home to be the man of the house. But Hank, a crab fisherman, was out on the Bering Sea, leaving Paulie’s mother, Tiffany, alone with Paulie and his nine-year-old sister, Casey, in their trailer.
Hank’s weeks away from them were a mixed blessing. He could be boisterous and lively, bringing the kids to garage sales in search of discarded treasures. He filled the shed he had built adjacent to the family's trailer with bargain tools and used them to repair toasters, bicycles, lamps, door hinges, anything that needed fixing. In the summertime, Hank took the kids camping and fishing, trolling for salmon on the Kenai River. An experienced angler, he taught them how to catch rainbow trout on Skilak Lake, baiting their gang hooks with worms as they faced the glacier at the head of the basin. Indoors, though, Hank was another man entirely. His angry, violent outbursts regularly left Tiffany or the kids crumpled in tears.
Paulie still flinched recalling an afternoon many years earlier, when a disagreement between his parents escalated into a brawl, Tiffany fell to the carpet with a bloody nose, and Paulie, just six, rose to defend her. But his father pinned him against the wall in front of the dining cabinet, his hand around his son’s throat. Then, suddenly, he dropped Paulie, and left the room, returning moments later with a gun. Paulie thought, Oh my God, he is going to kill me. But Hank did not point the gun at Paulie, nor at Tiffany. Instead, he put the barrel in his own mouth and forced Paulie to put his small finger on the trigger.
“It’s time for you to make the decision what you’re going to do for the rest of your life,” Hank hollered into Paulie's face. The boy cried, silently. Tiffany, who had wet herself from anxiety, vomited. I should do something, she thought, but she was frozen. Eventually, Hank scoffed at Paulie for refusing to shoot, then left the trailer in a rage.
The violence accelerated, and Tiffany descended into depression as their seventeen-year marriage wore on. A sour melancholy, beyond what’s common during the long, dark Alaskan winters, often paralyzed her. She slept away hours of the day, escaping via a mixture of antidepressants and pain medication prescribed for recurring back problems. Her frizzy reddish-brown hair splayed across her face as she dozed in the dark wood-paneled living room, sometimes leaving a dangling lit cigarette for Paulie or Casey to douse.
Paulie stood up and glanced at Casey asleep in the top bunk. He shadowboxed a bit near his sister's head, thinking about how his father would cheer from the stands during his Pop Warner football games. He sometimes felt more exhilaration from that sound than from victory on the football field. Paulie cherished that fleeting feeling, the thrill of seeing his father beam with pride, video camera in hand, his whole family together and happy.
Yet the last football season had ended badly for Paulie, and he was eager to prove himself again to his father. He had steamed through a fantastic fall, throwing dozens of touchdowns. His Bruins were undefeated, 8–0, coming into the playoffs against the rival Wolverines.
The Bruins went ahead early in the game, but the score tightened as the clock ticked down, and with just minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Paulie could not find an open receiver downfield. He took matters into his own hands and ran out of the pocket for the end zone. He peeled past the defensive line, and with only a free safety to beat, he raced to the goal line. The defender dove at Paulie’s heels, tripping him up a few yards shy of the end zone, and Paulie, thrown off balance, leaped with the ball to try to score. But his arm hit the turf hard and bent fully backward, pulverized. Paulie held onto the ball, short of the touchdown. The crowd rose, hushed, as his coach and his mother raced onto the field. Sobbing and unable to talk, he limped to the sidelines, passing his father, who repeatedly asked what was wrong.
Tiffany brushed Hank away and led Paulie to a chair. He hunched over in severe pain, oblivious to his surroundings until he felt a sudden jerk as Hank’s hand reached down and pulled his injured arm.
“Quit your bawling," he said, cursing. "Tell me what happened or I’m taking your whiny little ass home!”
Paulie walked to the car behind his family, his head bowed, his arm in excruciating pain. Casey was already in the backseat, Tiffany in the front passenger seat, nursing a new welt on her eye. Paulie asked her what happened, and she insisted it was nothing, that she had tripped and fallen. They rode in silence to the hospital, where x-rays showed Paulie had fractured his humerus bone. The doctor reset it and applied a cast that ended his football season and the family’s outings for the year. Hank's video recorder went into storage. The Bruins buckled a few weeks later in the championship game, with their star quarterback sitting on the sidelines.
Paulie was devastated, and Tiffany tried in the immediate aftermath to boost his spirits and remind him that the setback was temporary. Paulie still remembers with a grin how she looked him in the eyes each morning and encouraged him, “You are going to grow up and be something special, Paulie. You’re not like everybody else. You’ve been given a gift.” For her part, Tiffany hoped those words would inoculate him against the loss of his football season and other rough punches to come.
That early morning after the shaking of the ground woke him, he faked one more hit in Casey's direction andclimbed back in bed, ready to sleep again. At least Mom’s still here, he thought as he drifted off to sleep.
Not long after the earthquake, Tiffany obtained a new anti-depressant prescription from her doctor, and as the drugs started working, she took stock of her contentious marriage, realizing she’d had enough. She collected her children around the kitchen table one morning and delivered two strong aftershocks: she did not intend to let Hank back into the trailer when he returned, and she had invited a man named Ben, whom she had met online to visit them for Christmas in a . She described what a nice man Ben was and how he lived south of them in Alberta. It was plain to Paulie that Ben was not just any visitor—Paulie had watched Tiffany feverishly typing for hours at a time online. To get her attention, he sometimes crouched next to the screen, facing her, close enough to smell the nicotine on her breath, but she stayed thousands of miles away, her eyes obscured by the reflection of the monitor on her large glasses. Looking to catch his mother’s glance, he instead found in her glasses a wall of backward type.
Now he saw a new liveliness in her eyes, as she encouraged the kids not to worry about this new visitor. And, she added, they didn’t have to call him “dad” if they didn’t want to.
When Ben arrived, Paulie did not call him dad or anything remotely like it. Ben was nothing like his father. Hank was stocky and strong; Ben was lean and wiry. Paulie carefully danced around him, eyeing him suspiciously, declining offers of kindness and assistance.
Ben seemed to sweep into their lives seamlessly, helping with the chores, wrapping Christmas presents, and sleeping with Tiffany in Hank’s bed. It was unreal, and although Tiffany seemed happier than Paulie had ever seen her, he knew it could not last. He dropped to the lower bunk at night, aware that just a few feet away, his mother was enmeshed with her new boyfriend, while his father planned his return. He waited, watching the foundation of their family teetering. Something had to give.
Sure enough, it did. A few days later, Ben’s estranged wife killed herself in their home in Alberta. Paulie couldn’t quite make out the whispering between Ben and his mother during the next two days, but he listened intently, in anger and shock, when Tiffany sat the kids down once again and explained that Ben needed her help in Canada. She and Ben would be leaving together after Christmas. She described it as a fast trip, just to take care of a few things, and pledged they would return to the kids in a week. She sent Paulie and his sister to live with different friends. Paulie left home a day before his fourteenth birthday with some clothes, socks, and underwear hastily packed into a small duffle bag.
After a week, however, Tiffany sent word that Ben could not come back to Alaska, having previously overstayed his visa in the United States. Plus, Ben had his hands full in Canada, trying to win two of his four children back from foster care and removing his late wife’s belongings from their home. Tiffany had to decide whether to return to Alaska alone or stay with Ben and try to arrange for the kids to join her in Alberta down the road.
It was an easy choice for her. Alaska held mostly bad memories for Tiffany, but with Ben, she had found an ease and a peace she could not, would not, relinquish. She promised to apply for a student visa to allow Paulie to join her in Alberta, and she arranged for him to move in with one of her friends in the meantime. When Hank returned from crab fishing, he found his trailer empty, his family gone. He picked up Paulie and Casey and, in a rage, forced them to choose where they would live. Neither was eager to answer, but when repeatedly pressed, Casey chose Hank and Paulie chose Tiffany. His mother was the weaker of the two, and Paulie worried about her. Hank erupted, and nothing was ever the same again.
Until Paulie could move to Canada, he stayed with a girlfriend of Tiffany’s, who gave him more freedom than he had ever experienced. It was intoxicating. The woman’s son, more than ten years older than Paulie, roamed with a carefree tribe of twenty-somethings, and Paulie, often unsupervised, lost weekends and eventually schooldays to cocaine and cribbage marathons, poker tournaments, and beer pong. He soon began to experiment with marijuana and other drugs, all readily available. As the weeks turned into months and the temperatures climbed enough for the spring break-up to begin, Paulie’s attendance at school fell off, and he became edgy and unhappy about the long wait to rejoin what was left of his family. Just a week before his last day of eighth grade, he attacked the bully from gym class, who had been taunting him about his missing mother for much of the winter. Paulie left the boy’s face bloody and swollen, with his bottom lip split wide open. During middle school, Paulie had been a scrappy kid, encouraged by his father to fend for himself, but now he felt out of control, and the school agreed, expelling him.
Early that summer, after six months away, Tiffany finally sent a ticket for Paulie to join her and Ben in Alberta. When Paulie arrived at their home, he could see that Tiffany had settled into her new life without looking back. Ben’s older child in the house, a six-year-old boy with autism, was a handful, but he and his four-year-old sister looked to Tiffany as their mother. And she embraced the role, announcing to Paulie within minutes of seeing him that she and Ben planned to marry soon.
Paulie didn’t feel like he fit in. He continued to experiment with different drugs—downers, Ecstasy, cocaine—in larger doses, occasionally breaking into his mother’s room to steal her pot. Ben tried to encourage him to attend high school in Calgary, and Paulie seemed momentarily to hit his stride when the football coach discovered his strong arm and gave him a spot on the team, but it was not nearly as much fun as it had been up north. He missed his teammates, he missed his family cheering on the sidelines, and he missed home.
He even missed Tiffany, even though she was right there in front of him. He loved her, and he knew she loved him in her way, but he felt like a spectator or a houseguest in her new family, not a son. The painkillers Tiffany had become increasingly reliant on muddled her mind and pushed her further away from him. Paulie eventually quit school, occasionally idling away most of the day, sometimes watching the children or listening to Tiffany’s wedding plans. When the big day arrived, he put on his most ardent smile and sat to the right of his mother, watching her marry Ben in the very spot in their living room where Ben’s late wife had died one year earlier.
Over time, Paulie started returning home at odd hours of the night, addled, incoherent, pale. New blonde streaks lined his jet black hair, and he grew a stubby goatee, making him look older than his fifteen years. He ignored curfews, and Tiffany had a hard time keeping track of him.
She woke him one morning in his makeshift basement bedroom and discovered piles of shoplifted clothes. Paulie was planning to wear some and sell some for drug money. It was more than Tiffany could bear. She was not yet a Canadian citizen and worried that officials would discover the theft and punish her, perhaps forcing her to leave the country and her life with Ben.
She telephoned the authorities, turned Paulie in, and watched the police handcuff him and take him away. Paulie headed to a group home for delinquent youth. Before long, he was roaming Calgary, intermittently sleeping at Ben and Tiffany’s house or on the streets, watching the hookers and the drug addicts. This was no life, he thought. He had a better shot back in the 907 area code—friends, a sister, even his estranged father. Maybe he could reconstruct some semblance of a home back there, and, in any event, it was clear to him, at the age of fifteen that he had run his course with his mother and her new family.
Tiffany warned him not to go back to Hank in Alaska, predicting they would not get along, but when she could not persuade him, she handed him a creased and faded sheet of yellowed loose-leaf paper. “This is from your mother,” she said, “your biological mother.”
Paulie stopped short, speechless. He knew he had been adopted, but he had no idea his birth mother had left him a note. When he was 11 or 12, Paulie’s parents had told him his birth mother, whom they said was a teenage runaway, had abandoned him in a shed in the Alaskan countryside as an infant. How could he have a letter from her now, fifteen years later? He opened the letter immediately and read its contents. His correspondent, homeless and then just 17, said she knew he wouldn’t understand why she had chosen to surrender him, but hoped he might one day forgive her. And then, as only a mother can know, especially a young mother who for two years struggled to keep him safe and make ends meet, she explained:
I didn’t do this because I don’t love you or want you. I did this because I would much rather die than see you be deprived of a father, proper upbringing, and happiness, for you are my world… I don’t expect you to love me but I would love to meet you and see if you are well and happy . . . I love you my son. Please forgive me. Love you always, Frankie Sandmeyer
Reeling, Paulie put the note in his pocket and headed back to Anchorage, asking Hank if he could stay at the trailer. As Tiffany predicted, his arrival ignited a powder keg. Paulie and Hank fought constantly from the start. Hank was bigger and stronger than Paulie, and he had no tolerance for his son’s drug use, his stealing, his flouting curfews. Their shouting matches routinely turned violent, and one in particular shook Paulie to his foundation.
Although he had been considered an eleventh grader in Canada, his Alaska high school put him back in ninth grade, and he cut a lot of school. When Hank caught him, he gave Paulie one of the worst beatings of his life, pulling his hair, kicking him, throwing him against the refrigerator, nearly breaking a table over him. Then he drove Paulie to school. During the ride, Hank cried his eyes out, saying how much he loved Paulie and wanted to be his friend. Dazed, still bleeding, Paulie sat motionless, wondering what love is.
A week or so after that fight, he called his football coach and said he wouldn't be playing on the team anymore, as he was leaving home. He left Hank's, empty handed, and wandered the cold, dark streets of their northern town.
Paulie continued to become more involved with drugs, especially Ecstasy, a stimulant and low-level hallucinogen, stealing from local retailers so he could buy more pills. After he was arrested for shoplifting at a local store, Paulie tried to crash with his best friend, begging his friend’s mother to hide him. But she knew Paulie had a juvenile record and was expected to report in regularly to a probation officer. She called the cops, who brought him to Covenant House in Anchorage, the only shelter for homeless and runaway teenagers in Alaska’s largest city. Housed in the former downtown YMCA, the shelter was an unremarkable brick building that once had one of the city’s only community pools. Covenant House had filled in the pool and converted the space into a living room for the city’s destitute young people. Paulie could hardly believe he had become one of them.
Arriving at Covenant House
Mildred Mack was working an overnight shift when she first saw Paulie walk through the front door of the shelter. She had started at Covenant House six years earlier, in 1993, after the breakup of her nearly twenty-year marriage. She had loyally supported her ex-husband's army career, moving with him from Kansas to Hawaii to Georgia, uprooting their son and daughter each time, and finally arriving in Alaska. After the divorce she was faced with raising two teenagers on her own.
Mildred was hard to miss, one of the few African American faces in a city that is more than 70 percent white. She was older than the rest of the shelter staff—well into her fifties, with wavy brown hair combed forward and high cheek bones that cradled inquiring, wide eyes. By most accounts, she was no-nonsense, demanding, and relentless, qualities that had helped her put her children’s lives back together after the divorce, when all she really wanted to do was cry herself to sleep. She had found a way to force a smile and put food on the table, with no time for self pity, hers or anyone else’s. It was Paulie’s terrible misfortune, he would soon think, to have Mildred Mack as his primary counselor.
When he first arrived at Covenant House, it was obvious he needed sleep, a warm shower, and food. He came exhausted, having couch-surfed from one friend’s home to another, sometimes with their parents’ knowledge, other times sneaking inside after they went to bed. He spent a few nights walking the streets, bundled against the freeze, tired, cold and hungry. His body was just run down. The staff at Covenant House called local child welfare authorities to report Paulie's allegations of physical abuse, and called Hank to notify him of Paulie's presence at the shelter and request some clothes, but Hank refused. The next day, Paulie called Hank directly. Crying, he asked his father for his clothes, but Hank rebuffed him and fumed that Paulie was just avoiding reality by not getting help for his drug problem.
“Why don’t you come home and stand up to me like a man?” Hank said.
“I will when I’m not a toothpick,” Paulie responded, “when I can stand up to you without getting beat up.”
After letting him rest a few days, Mildred expected more from him. He needed counseling, she was certain. He talked longingly of a birth mother he had never met and denied having a drug problem. He seethed about feelings of abandonment, Hank's beatings, and the many reasons he could not live with either parent, unloading story after story like a seasoned raconteur, but he was stymied by the simplest follow-up question: “What do you want to do about this?”
Mildred believed that Paulie needed to become serious about school, gather his important papers, and look for a part-time job. He had not finished one year of high school, and the longer he waited, the tougher it would be to earn his diploma. Without that, his prospects for finding his way off the streets would be much slimmer.
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Kevin Ryan is the President and CEO of Covenant House International, the largest charity in North and Central America helping homeless, trafficked and exploited youth. During the 1990s, Ryan spent nearly a decade on the frontlines of Covenant House’s work with homeless and trafficked children on the streets of New York and New Jersey before being appointed by the governor of New Jersey as the state’s first Child Advocate. He uncovered conditions of severe and illegal overcrowding at the State’s juvenile centers and helped to craft some of New Jersey's most important child welfare laws, including the Homeless Youth Act in 1999 and the FamilyCare Health Coverage Act in 2000. His work drew considerable national attention, including two appearances on “60 Minutes,” as well as front-page stories in The New York Times, The Star Ledger, The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer.