Filling the gap for homeless youths

Filling the gap for homeless youths

For most of his young life, 19-year-old DeAngelo Bowie has led a nomadic existence, never quite sure where he would land next. Sometimes at home. Other times on a friend's couch. For two years during ninth and 10th grades he lived in an extended stay hotel room with nine other family members.

"It was crazy," DeAngelo recalled recently. "My mom went into labor while we were staying there. I slept on the floor."

The teen had been swept along a current of homelessness that experts say threatens more than a million children and youth each year.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 1,065,794 homeless students were enrolled in the nation's schools last year, the highest number on record. Georgia has about 32,000 homeless students -- a 32 percent increase since the 2008-2009 school year. In metro Atlanta, they number about 14,000, said Protip Biswas, vice president of the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta's Regional Commission on Homelessness.

They live in cars, cheap motel rooms, church basements and low-income apartments. "They don't show up in shelters," said Biswas. "They don't admit they are homeless, but if you delve deeper into where they are, they are couch surfers. They don't have a permanent address."

Schools are the largest provider of services to homeless children and youth, child advocates say. They are both a safety net and a ladder up and out of poverty. But when their doors shut for spring, summer and winter breaks, it poses a hardship on students who have no place to go.

When it happened to DeAngelo he turned to the one constant in his life for help: Kim Dennis, executive director of Create Your Dreams, a youth development program for students living in low income areas of Atlanta.

When Dennis couldn't find a place for him to go, the mother of two opened her home in Ansley Park to him.

At her dining room table, Dennis, DeAngelo and 19-year-old Alexandra Rachel, another homeless youth Dennis took in, talked about the circumstances that brought them here.

DeAngelo and Alexandra grew up in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Bankhead. He is the eldest of seven, she the oldest of five.

Both are the first in their families to graduate high school — DeAngelo from Forest Park High and Alexandra from Booker T. Washington.

Had it not been for CYD, the teens say, neither of them would have reached that milestone. The program, housed in the King Plow Arts Center, provides academic, social and emotional support to students from elementary school through high school and college, and it boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate.

DeAngelo's and Alexander's relationship with CYD and Dennis dates back to when they were in elementary school at William Boyd Elementary.

In many ways, they grew up in the Dennis home long before they moved in. They attended her children's birthday parties, enjoyed back-to-school barbecues, group sleep-overs and July 4th fireworks at the Ansley Golf Club, where DeAngelo is now a pool attendant.

Dennis opened her home full-time to Alexandra shortly after she graduated from high school last summer when her relationship with her mother grew strained.

"My mom would've held me back," Alexandra said. "Had I stayed I wouldn't have gotten any further. I would've gotten on welfare like her. I would've been another statistic."

DeAngleo came two months ago when he was diagnosed with diabetes and was struggling to manage his health. A third CYD student moved in six months ago.

"I'm driven to make sure the kids have what they need to succeed, but my family is really the generous ones," Dennis said.

In the fall Alexandra will return to South Carolina State University to study biology, and DeAngelo will begin his freshman year at Georgia State, where he plans to study education. And Dennis will do what she has always done, stand in the gap for kids in need.

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