[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting to correct errors.]
He sits on downtown benches, smiling and greeting people who walk past him. He’ll nod in acknowledgement or say, “Hey.” It’s obvious that he’s there.
But most of the time, no one seems to notice Anthony Wilson.
“I get mad when I’ll say ‘hi’ to someone walking down the street and they’ll just completely ignore me,” the 18-year-old said. “I won’t even be doing something bad. I’ll just be friendly, and they act like I am not even there.”
Wilson spends a lot of his time sitting outside the shops on Ninth Street, watching the steps that quicken at his presence and the eyes that clearly graze him but rarely meet his own. There isn’t much else to do for a teenager who has nowhere to go.
Wilson’s been homeless virtually all of his life, adopted and thrust in and out of foster care and boys’ homes since he was 3. Going downtown, he said, is a way to venture outside St. Francis House or Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, where Wilson usually spends part of his day. They aren’t his friends, but many of the homeless people he meets downtown have something in common with Wilson — they’re his age.
Many people don’t see the homeless teenagers of Columbia. With no real way to pinpoint their locations or count them, homeless teenagers are often easy to miss. They are sometimes transient, traveling from place to place quickly. Wilson said the people his age who come to the shelter leave before he gets to know them. Others are homeless but slip through that classification because they live with friends or siblings. Some run from foster homes or abusive families and can’t reveal their identities.
Lana Jacobs has seen the homeless teens. They are squatting in buildings, living in camps and sticking together to take care of each other. Running the St. Francis and the Z. Lois Bryant houses, Jacobs knows them by their names and recognizes their faces. She eats dinner with them nearly every night.
Jacobs said homeless teens come to Columbia in greater numbers during the summer, when it’s easier to hunt for houses and jobs. She usually sees more than 30 homeless teens daily. Some stay for hours; others stay for weeks.
Just because they don’t look homeless — just because police officers and social servants don’t recognize them as homeless — doesn’t mean they don’t exist, she said.
“Cops wouldn’t be able to tell. Do people carry a sign?” Jacobs said. “You can’t tell that the people on my front porch are homeless. How would you know that unless you had a personal relationship with them?”
Columbia Police Sgt. Danny Grant, who has worked with the Community Services Unit patrolling all parts of the city for 19 years, said he has never seen the homeless teens. They’re in St. Louis, Chicago and Dallas but not in Columbia, he said, except for isolated instances.
“Columbia is an incredible city of social services,” he said. “I haven’t seen any homeless teens running around. In Columbia, you just don’t see that.”
There are few services in Columbia that truly reach homeless teenagers, Jacobs said. In fact, St. Francis House is one of the only shelters that will take teens younger than 18 because privacy, custody and legal concerns often prevent social services from adequately housing them. If the legal system or government agencies don’t want to deal with them, Jacobs said, she is ready and willing.
Lynn Cole, manager of the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Children’s Division for the 13th Judicial Circuit, said that although DSS will find a foster home for every child sent to the division, finding homes for teenagers, especially older ones, is incredibly difficult. The division usually searches for appropriate relatives the teens can live with before finding a good foster home. Of the 120 foster homes in Boone County, she said, only about 30 percent will consider taking teens.
“People think teenagers are harder to deal with,” Cole said. “Just being a teenager, just their problems, just the normal things teenagers do and the things teenagers have been through (make it a challenge).”
In 2003, there were 148 Boone County teens age 15 and older who were placed in foster homes and/or residential care. Cole said she sees many runaways, but police and courts usually find them in a matter of days. No data exist on the number of children and teens who run from foster homes because the number changes daily, she said.
Wilson said he has been in more than 20 foster homes. He fled from some and was rejected from others.
Cole said the courts can place children in foster homes until their 18th birthday and usually release them only after they have established a plan and a place to live. But she added that sometimes the division releases teenagers whose futures are not concrete. Jacobs said she finds them on her doorstep, often younger than 17 and without identification.
“If the state of Missouri is going to dump these children out at 16, then by God, they have got to have a plan for them,” Jacobs said.
Doris Chiles, executive director of the Columbia Housing Authority, said neither that agency nor the federal Section 8 program can accommodate minors. She said the housing authority has received several referrals from school counselors dealing with students who can’t complete high school because they’ve suddenly been kicked out of their homes or have run away. There are really no facilities to which these teenagers can turn, Chiles said.
“There is a void in Columbia for these services,” she said. “There is a greater need than the public perceives.”
Hickman High School counselors usually give information about underage students living on their own to social services, said guidance director Ann Landes. Landes said she gets frustrated trying to decide the best place to send students; often 17-year-olds no longer qualify for foster care or the 30-day program at Rainbow House.
Rock Bridge High School guidance director Marsha Uphoff said when students become homeless during the year, she also has trouble deciding where to send them. If they are 16 or 17 and fleeing home, she usually reports them to social services. But her hands are usually tied when dealing with homeless teens. When their situations change, they are often too scared or ashamed to tell a counselor. Students must show proof of residence and custody to attend high school. Missouri law, however, says homeless minors who are 16 or 17 are qualified for admission to high school or post-secondary school.
“We could use a resource in the community that would provide housing for those situations,” Uphoff said, recalling that school districts in Oklahoma created an apartment complex for teens who wanted to finish school but had nowhere to live.
“The school doesn’t have the resources. I just worry about where they are and what they are doing when they don’t have parents or someone else to take responsibility for them.”
Lynn Barnett, assistant superintendent for Columbia Public Schools, said local high schools accept homeless students but investigate their backgrounds for documentation of past schools and to try to find their guardians.
Eve Pearson, once the children-at-risk chairwoman for the League of Women Voters, helped the league hold a public forum and panel discussion in 2001 on the necessity of safe housing for homeless youths. People at the meeting hoped to receive a federal grant to build a shelter for teens, but nothing came of the meeting — not even increased public attention to the topic, Pearson said.
“Columbia has its blinders on and wants to keep them on,” Pearson said. “Every other city of its size has a problem. It is really hard to pretend you don’t have a problem when the odds of having one are so stacked against you.”
Jacobs said it’s unfortunate that many social service agencies are south of Broadway, where workers don’t see or grasp the problem.
“Social service people sit in their offices from eight in the morning to five,” she said. “That is not when our kids are at risk. They are at risk at night when they have nowhere to sleep, and they are used and abused by people who prostitute and pimp them.”
Jacobs said the streams of money pouring into social services rarely trickle through the system to reach homeless teens, a group that might be the most at risk.
Advent Enterprises’ youth mentoring program helps teenagers and those as old as 22 find jobs and set long-term goals after years of foster care or transitional living. Teens are usually referred to Advent by DSS, coordinator Tamara Kinzel said, but it will take those who come off the street.
Advent promises teens at least a temporary job, but finding them a place to live is challenging. Many older teens don’t want to find new foster families, and the housing authority is unable to serve them. So, Advent finds it sometimes must refer them to a shelter, such as St. Francis House, Kinzel said.
Boys and Girls Town of Missouri, which operates on both state and private money, has a Columbia campus with 31 beds. Director Rebecca Albrecht said Boys and Girls Town sees 11- to 21-year-olds, puts them through some type of schooling and helps them find transitional housing.
Some of the teenagers there, Albrecht said, have run from foster homes and are placed in the program by the state because they have severe behavioral problems that make it hard to find a good foster family match. Albrecht said many of the teenagers whom her agency serves, however, have trouble with authority, and some of them run away.
Wilson left Boys Town after just six weeks, saying he didn’t get the attention he wanted, but he had no place to go. He ended up in another foster home — one he actually liked — but the family lacked the money to adopt him.
Jacobs said many teens are reluctant to join state-sponsored programs. St. Francis House, she said, is the only place that won’t turn them away when they get too old and won’t force them into social programs that can’t meet their needs. It will, she said, give them the personal relationships they need to foster trust and eventually get back on their feet.
While the web of available social services agencies is able to help some teens, it failed to provide a safety net for Wilson and continues to miss the teenagers Jacobs sees daily at St. Francis House. She said a combination of denial, ignorance and lack of concern for the teenagers keeps them on the streets. Personal relationships, she said, are what can really change the status quo.
“Right now, they have no reason to trust adults, but they trust my children, so they trust me,” said Jacobs, whose children also work at the soup kitchen and live with their families at the shelters.
“I am not sitting behind a desk. I am sitting around the dinner table with them. It is not about fixing people. It’s about relationships.”