An annual event organized by Homeplate is a community dinner called FarmPlate, which raises money to help at risk youth in Washington County. (Photo: Homeplate)
Laura moved into a spare room at a friend’s apartment in Hillsboro. She lived with her for a while until things got out of hand, and one night came home to her belongings thrown out of the house. She moved again. And again. And sometime during this confusion, she gave birth to a boy, the son of a man who was her drug-addicted boyfriend at the time.
When Portlanders consider the homeless youth population in our state, many only think of the kids in the city. While there is a considerable amount of homelessness in Portland, it is in fact Washington County that has the highest rate of homeless youth in the state of Oregon.
Laura is a 19-year-old mother living in Forest Grove, raising her child and supporting herself week by week. One day, while walking down the street with her boyfriend, a man offered the two a card with the name of a homeless shelter for reference if they ever needed it. They took it reluctantly, since neither of them were homeless at the time, but a month later, Laura found herself on the streets.
She grew up with one of her sisters, but another, the youngest sister, wasn’t adopted to the same family, and Laura has never been able to make contact with her. At age 17, her adoptive parents filed for a divorce, and conflict within her adoptive family escalated quickly as Laura rebelled and argued constantly with her mother about everything in her life. Finally, at work one day, her mom walked in, and as Laura puts it, “told me I had one week to get out of her house.”
Homeplate Youth Services, the organization on that business card, quickly became one of the most helpful forces in her life. She visited the drop-in sites every Monday and Wednesday night, for food and baby clothes, but more importantly for advice and support from the community. They offered her a job on Saturdays, and she built friendships with youth going through similar issues.
Now Laura and her ten-month-old son are living back with her adoptive father, and she works weekdays and Saturdays to make as much money as possible. She will readily admit, “I spend too much money on cigarettes, really gotta quit that,” and with the expenses of caring for her child, the cost of food, her phone bill, and more, she has a lot to pay for.
Her dream is to become a nurse and graduate from college, but for now she has bigger priorities. Her advice for others at risk? “Stay in school. Be smart. Just stay in school.”
Laura’s story may be unique, but it falls in line with many of the youth in Washington County, who go through the same struggles to find stability in their lives.
Peter, age 22, was in foster care until he was four years old, and after he met back up with his birth mother at the age of 18, they spent the next three years moving from state to state. When they finally ended up in Portland, he decided he wanted to stay put, while she moved back to the South. He says that he “almost preferred bouncing around,” but ultimately decided that he “needed to stand on [his] own two feet.”
He couch-surfed for a year or so, and now lives at a clean and sober Transitional Housing facility for the time being. He works as a dishwasher during the week, and on Saturdays for the Homeplate Sit ’n Stay Dog-Sitting program, earning minimum wage. Although he had to drop out of college, and didn’t finish his courses, he hopes to return in the spring to get a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
He met Laura at Homeplate. Peter says, “She’s like a sister to me. I help her out whenever I can.” Assisting one another and receiving help from the community around them are the two main reasons homeless youth in Oregon are able to survive. This is especially true in Washington County, where the majority of community-based support comes from Homeplate.
Since 2005, Homeplate has been aiding homeless youth ages 12 to 24 in through various programs. They are one of few such organizations in Washington County besides SafePlace, which is government-run and serves only youth under 19.
“There are a few family shelters, but I could count them all on one hand,” says Terra Neilson, the development director for Homeplate. She described how being the main source of aid for at-risk youth in Washington County is a big responsibility, but after moving to a new Beaverton location, the support from the community around them has increased considerably.
While this progress is a definite positive, the county still struggles to find ways to deeply reduce their homeless population. In 2008 Portland introduced the “10-Year Plan to End Homelessness,” made specifically to combat this difficult problem, but it has unfortunately yet to make a noticeable impact on the community.
The lives of Laura and Peter are examples of how homeless youth survive day by day, adding a human side to the political debate so prevalent locally. Washington County. While organizations dedicate themselves to aiding individuals, the overall issue is found throughout the entire county and is a problem that needs addressing.