By Terrah Baker
Josh was 18 years old living in a tent in Walker Park when he first learned about the YouthBridge program.
“At first it was just me….It was a little scary at first because I didn’t know who else was out there,” Josh said.
Josh grew up in Washington, with a mother he hadn’t been with much since he was 14. He began traveling around to get out of the house, but after a short stint back at home at 18, decided it was time to leave for good. That’s when he met an Internet friend through online gaming who suggested he pick up and move to Arkansas.
“I actually packed my stuff and walked and hitchhiked down here … I was just thinking of getting here and didn’t make a full plan,” he said.
With little to no parental guidance, and no money to speak of, when he arrived he had no support system — no ID, no birth certificate, no job history to speak of, no phone, no car and no place to live.
“I was just staying here, staying there, trying to figure out what to do next. That was the biggest thing, ‘what next.’ Normally, I’m not the guy who wants to look back at what happened, but there was pretty much nothing I could do.”
From there, he found the park, and from there a church’s free meals where he met a friend who told him about YouthBridge’s transitional living program. Josh said when he first arrived at the residential home he felt comfortable, unlike other programs he had been in and kicked out of before due to depression or conflicts with other residents.
Josh’s situation is not unique in many ways, said YouthBridge employee Kody Ford. Many of the 18-21-year-old youth they assist have nothing they need to make a life in our modern-day society.
“There’s a few things that really are a detriment to the homeless in general and especially the youth … They don’t have employment backgrounds, their paperwork, they don’t have a social security card, an ID, birth certificate, so we work with them to get those, along with rides, access to a phone so employees can contact them,” Ford explained.
These are a few of the ways YouthBridge helps young people become productive citizens after they reach the age where many parents and programs kick them out, whether or not they’re ready.
Last year, YouthBridge assisted 3,000 – 4,000 youth and some family members between their transitional living, residential and outpatient programs — including youth under 18 suffering from addiction or behavioral problems. But that’s just scraping the surface, said Director of Development, Dr. Nancy Hairston.
“The big thing the public doesn’t necessarily realize is there’s a real problem with youth and homelessness. And one of the biggest problems is in Benton County. I think people think they live in this great place with this booming economy but as our numbers have increased in NWA, also the numbers are increasing of those that live below the poverty line,” she explained.
These numbers are indicated in part by U of A’s report on NWA homeless, that showed a growth in 2013 to 2,429 homeless from 2,001 in 2012, with 52 percent of homeless people being 18 and under. (sociology.uark.edu/Factsheet15_Jan2013.pdf)
Before the 2013 U.S. government budget sequestration led to major budget cuts, YouthBridge offered housing for single mothers between 18-25, and for men up to age 25. YouthBridge has lost several of its programs but with the help of the community, grants and an upcoming gala, YouthBridge administration hopes to once again offer women’s housing and extend their reach to those who need them.
To learn more about YouthBridge, visit their website at YouthBridge.com.
It’s A Wonderful Life Red Carpet Gala will celebrate 50 years of YouthBridge’s service to community youth. Experience the decades at this red carpet, cocktail attire affair with gourmet food, a game show, silent auction, mystery gifts, live auction and a balloon pop where “everyone wins.” The event will be held Feb. 13, 5:30 – 9 p.m. at the Embassy Suites Hotel, Spa and Convention Center in Rogers. Register by Feb. 10 at youthbridge.com/gala2013.