Formerly Homeless Youth Testify in Philadelphia City Council's First Public Hearing on Youth Homelessness

There was a time when Joseph Hill-Coles saw only a cell or a cemetery in his future.

Born addicted to crack cocaine to a mother who battled drug addiction, Hill-Coles entered foster care when he was 3. For eight years, he bounced among what he described as more foster homes than he could count, before finally being adopted at age 10. Eventually, though, Hill-Coles fell prey to the streets, selling drugs and getting kicked out of schools until his adoptive mom finally had enough and kicked him out. As a teen, he wound up homeless.

"At age 17, I was arrested and locked up as an adult for a year and a half," Hill-Coles said in City Council chambers Thursday, where he was one of more than a dozen speakers at a joint committee hearing on youth homelessness. "Once released, it became all about survival. I house hopped until I wore out my welcome and then spent a couple months living on the streets. Selling drugs just to be able to have money to eat, I slept in LOVE Park, in abandoned buildings, and eventually found myself in and out of adult shelters."

Hill-Coles, 22, is one among what is estimated to be hundreds -- maybe even thousands -- of teens and young adults who experience homelessness on the streets of Philadelphia.

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The staggering numbers caught the eyes of freshmen council members Helen Gym, who heads the Committee on Children and Youth, and Allan Domb, who heads the Committee on Housing Neighborhood Development and the Homeless, and the pair earlier this year decided to join forces and form a joint committee to solve the problem.

"Since 2009, we have seen an alarming increase of over 70 percent in the number of youth experiencing homelessness in our city," Gym said. "These young people face enormous challenges and for too long they have been overlooked by policymakers. It's time for us to bring them to the table to seek solutions."

The hearing, attended by about 120 people, was the first public platform centered on combating youth homelessness. Advocates called for the formation of an inter-agency council to address the problem and more funding for emergency, transitional and permanent supportive housing specifically for youth. In addition to Gym and Domb, council members Jannie Blackwell, Derek Green, Al Taubenberger and Cindy Bass were in attendance.

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The issue is one that crosses party lines in the city. Taubenberger, the only Republican in attendance at the hearing, said afterward that youth homelessness is a major problem requiring urgent action. "You can't have a generation of young people sleeping on the subway and trains. It's something we can't ignore," he said.

The three-hour hearing opened with a three-minute clip from Faces of Homeless Youth, an in-depth report by NBC10 published and aired late last year that explored youth homelessness through the eyes of young people who are currently or who have been homeless. Hill-Coles, along with more than a dozen other young people, were profiled in the report.

City Office of Supportive Housing Director Liz Hersh told council members that a cost-analysis by her office showed that $3.5 million in additional funding could help establish 300 to 400 additional emergency beds for youth. She said the office had not investigated, however, how much it would cost annually to maintain those beds if they were added.

Hersh said that in one of the most recent homeless youth counts, only 11 percent of homeless young people located in Philadelphia were staying in shelters.

"I don't think shelters are the right place for young people," Hersh said during the hearing. "They need to be in permanent supportive or transitional housing."

Currently in the city, Hersh said, there are 109 emergency beds altogether for kids and young adults ages 3 through 24, 223 transitional housing beds for youth, and 56 permanent supportive beds.

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Of the emergency beds, only 76 are designated specially for teens and adolescents, according to John Ducoff, executive director of Covenant House Pennsylvania. Of those, 51 are located at Covenant House's crisis shelter in Germantown and receive no city funding, Ducoff testified.

Domb called the number of beds dedicated to teens and adolescents "unacceptable" in a city of 1.5 million that is considered to be the most impoverished large city in the United States. In Philadelphia, the poverty rate was about 26 percent in 2013, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report.

Ducoff went on to say that Covenant House, the only shelter in the city that specially serves 18- to 21-year-olds, turned away 546 kids in need of shelter last year alone due to a lack of space. He said that his organization determined that 75 more beds would help to close the gap in the number of youth they can serve at a cost of $2.4 million, adding that the estimated cost included wrap-around services, supervision and other help necessary for each additional young adult.

"If you don't step up now, they'll be the next generation of chronically homeless adults, in jail, or dead," Ducoff said.

The age range that Covenant House serves is one of the most vulnerable, advocates said, because it covers the gap when kids age out of the child welfare and foster care systems and are most likely to become homeless if they haven't formed networks and developed the skills needed to support themselves.

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Gary Williams, the deputy commissioner for children and youth at the city Department of Human Services, said that in fiscal year 2015, 235 youth between 18 and 21 aged out of foster care without having "reached permanency," or found a stable place to live. This year through March 31 alone, another 176 young people aged out, Williams testified.

He said that a recent study showed that foster-care youth are more likely than their counterparts who have not been in the child welfare system to become homeless, and that more than half of homeless youth surveyed had been involved in the foster-care system. Foster-care children are also apt to spend more time homeless, he said, with the average stint of homelessness for a former foster child being two years and three months, while the average for non-foster-care children sitting at one year and seven months.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are particularly vulnerable to homelessness, Nellie Fitzpatrick, who heads the city's Office of LGBT Affairs, said.

Fitzpatrick said that while young people who identify as LGBT make up about 5 percent to 7 percent of the youth population overall, they make up between 32 percent and 40 percent of the homeless youth population.

Kemar Jewel was in that group.

Now 24, Jewel testified about being kicked out of his home when he was 16 and having to "couch surf" and live on the streets. He described experiencing repeated instances of physical and sexual abuse while he was homeless, and being forced to sell his body to eat.

"All that happened because I had nowhere safe to go," Jewel, who is now a college graduate and a professional dancer, said.

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Against what seemed like all odds, Hill-Coles and Jewel both made it out of homelessness. Hill-Coles, who was profiled in NBC10's Faces of Homeless Youth, an in-depth report on the issue published and aired late last year, has his own apartment now, a job with an organization that greens vacant lots, and a clear path to a bright future. He told the committee that he shared his story because he wants to ensure that other homeless young people enjoy the same opportunities to get back on track and success that he has.

"I was many things before Covenant House, but I have chosen not to let those things in my past define me," Hill-Coles said. "The staff helped to shape me into the man before you today. My commitment back is to help shape the lives of youth so they don't end up on the streets like I did. I am a success. I am a leader. I am wanted. I am supported and cared for. I am loved."

Watch Joseph share his story here, and learn more about youth homelessness in Faces of Homeless Youth here.

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