Homeless teens living in Marin County

July 24, 2008 11:45:54 AM PDT
There may be as many as two million teenagers who are homeless in the U.S. And if that isn't shocking enough, there are an estimated 600 homeless teens in affluent Marin County.

There is a program that helps Marin's young people get off the streets.

"I was homeless, I slept in parks, bus stops, friend's house, subways when I was in New York," said Vincent Chew.

"Yeah, I was homeless for four years, um, and it was sad," said Jimmy Hayes.

"Just kind of a wet, damp, old sleeping bag, you know. But it was mine, it was the only I had, per se, I would usually try to get under a tree for shelter," said Amy Phelan.

"And then I went to another friend's house, and another friend's house, slept in cars, with my friends, like we would drive around all night and they would let me sleep in the car with them, that would be real nice," said Ariona Johnson.

"Trying to figure out what I was going to do for the day, how I was going to get food, how I was going to get money and drugs, pretty much and that was a big involvement when I was homeless," said Phelan.

"The worst feeling was not knowing where you were going to sleep that night, not having a place to go, not knowing what you're going to do," said Johnson.

It's hard to believe that these four bright young people were homeless in one of the wealthiest places in the San Francisco Bay Area -- Marin County.

Now many young lives are being turned around because they found help through the Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity Project.

"It's a safety net for young people 18 to 25 who are without a caring adult or resources when they turn 18," said Founder A.H.O. Zara Babitzke.

Babitske, a Marin County social worker founded The Ambassadors Project, or A.H.O. for short. She was homeless at one point in her life. She meets with young people wherever it's convenient for them, and helps link them with nearly two dozen services in the county, including food, clothes, jobs and health insurance.

"We can help these young people with a life coach, stable housing and a myriad of essential resources that are provided by our community partners, like the Marin Education Fund," said Babitzke.

Vincent Chew worked at Marin Education Fund for more than a year, as an intern. The 19-year-old has gone from a homeless, drug-dealing gang-member to a "super achiever" with political ambitions and a desire to work in the medical world.

"A lot of kids just want to be drug dealers, or want to be gang members," said Chew.

"Was that you?" asked ABC7's Cheryl Jennings.

"That was me, that was the old me," said Chew.

"Everyone in the office has come to me separately and said how pleased they are and how quick Vince learns the detail," said V.P. Marin Education Fund Traci Lanier.

This motivated college student has testified before the State Legislature. It's part of the project's agenda.

"We match them with community and political leaders where they can share their stories and advocate for themselves and other young people in a similar situation," said Babitzke.

The problem nationwide may shock you.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2000 that 40 percent of the homeless population was between the ages of 14 to 25, and it hasn't changed much since.

"We're always coming up with these psycho-social reasons why kids are homeless," said journalist Nell Bernstein.

Bernstein co-authored a report on youth homelessness for California.

It found that nearly 30 percent of young people became homeless because they were: "kicked out, thrown out, or pushed out by their parents."

Others left because of family conflicts, substance abuse on the part of the kids or the parents, Foster Care problems, sexual orientation, no job, or physical or sexual abuse in the home.

Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity also teaches these young people how to advocate for themselves, by staging community events where they can raise money and awareness.

"I was having such a hard time in my life and now, A.H.O. helped me out and things are so much better," said Jimmy Hayes.

Jimmy and his girlfriend take turns with Vince and other A.H.O. members, telling community groups about teen homelessness and how their lives have changed.

Now, Jimmy and Amy have a baby, their own apartment and jobs.

"My life right now is great," said Phelan.

"A.H.O. is like finally a home that I can call my own," said Hayes.

"I have to provide for the community, not destroy the community," said Chew.

"Can you do it?" asked ABC7's Cheryl Jennings.

"Yes," said Chew.

Are you doing it?" asked ABC7's Cheryl Jennings.

"Yes, I'm doing it!" said Chew.

Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity needs your help -- $5,000 will subsidize rent payments for a year, for each teen while they're building up their own resources.

Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity.


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