COLUMBIA — Last week, Kelsey Batton was having trouble completing an essay that was due in a few days. Although it wasn't for a class, the topic was a tough one that hit close to home.
It was about homelessness, a topic Batton, 18, knows well. After being kicked out of her mother's home, she spent several months this year couch-surfing from place to place.
“Every time I write about how my mom would kick me out all the time, it just makes me frustrated toward her and I don’t want to bring that up,” she said.
The essay was for a youth art contest put on by Sol House, a transitional living program that provides residence and training in life skills for people ages 16 to 21.
Throughout the month of November, Sol House is holding a variety of events and exhibits in conjunction with National Homeless Youth Awareness Month.
The events are intended to raise awareness about the younger homeless demographic, starting with an open mic night Nov. 9 when the winner of the essay contest will be announced. It will be held at the Underground Café at 6 p.m.
The second-place winner will receive a cash prize. In addition to money, the first-place finisher will have a chance to present work Nov. 19 on the steps of the State Capital Building as part of Homeless Awareness Day.
Heather Windham, director of Sol House, said she hopes this will make people realize that homelessness does not affect older generations exclusively.
“People tend to think only of street kids in bigger cities or children in families who are homeless,” Windham said. “There’s often an unknown sector of youth in the community, in rural or smaller towns, who are couch surfing.”
Many young people who do not have stable home environments tend to double up or “couch surf” — bouncing back and forth between the homes of friends and acquaintances.
“Some funding sources don’t count ‘doubling up’ as homeless, unfortunately,” Windham said. “This makes identifying homeless youth up to 21 more broad.”
Batton couch surfed from place to place for months after getting kicked out of her mother’s St. Louis home in December. Eventually, she wound up staying at Sol House for about two months.
She recently left the program to move back in with her mother. Since she’s back in St. Louis, she’s not sure if she’ll be able to make it to Columbia this month.
She was never able to finish her essay.
“It’s difficult to sit down and write it, because it’s not a positive topic,” she said. “I’ve started it so many different ways and I don’t know where to go with it.”
Because couch surfing isn’t recognized by formal organizations, homeless youth tend to believe they’re “just piecing together places to stay,” Windham said. That makes it difficult to gather accurate statistics.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness Web site reports that “researchers estimate that between 5 and 7 percent … of the general teenage population experiences at least one episode of homelessness each year.” That statistic does not include people over 18.
“Most come from disruptive families. A parent is incarcerated, deceased, dealing with mental or substance problems,” Windham said. “Some young people are aging out of foster care, but they aren’t always ready to live on their own.”
As part of the emphasis on teen homelessness, Sol House is staging a photo exhibit, "Faces of Homeless Youth," by Kansas City artist Hugh Merrill at the Columbia Public Library on Nov. 10.
“It puts a positive spin on youth homelessness in terms of focusing on positive qualities, and strengths they bring,” Windham said.
The last big event is a screening of the documentary “Streetwise” at Ragtag Cinema on Nov. 14 followed by a panel of current and former Sol House residents.
Though the documentary was filmed in Seattle in 1984, the Academy Award-nominated film is still relevant to a community like Columbia.
“It’s good; the camera goes into the nooks and crannies of their lives in Seattle,” Windham said. “It’s a different era, but the issues are similar.”
She said Sol House currently has its longest waiting list in two years. The program, based out of an apartment with a confidential location, can house four young men and four young women. About 30 youth are hoping to stay there in the near future.
Sol House is funded by competitive state grants and private donations. The grant is up for renewal in 2012, and private donations have been down because of the economic recession.
Yet, despite the number of homeless youth, Windham remains optimistic, and wants to raise awareness in any positive way possible.
“There’s so much judgment on teens,” she said. “I want to expose them as resources and assets. To not judge a young person by their record. To look for a diamond in the rough.”