Homeless Teens Find Hope, Help At NEPA Youth Shelter
Around this time of year, Maureen Maher-Gray’s wish list reads a lot different than most others.
Instead of begging for the hottest smart devices, jewelry or designer duds, the executive director of NEPA Youth Shelter asks for donations of clothes, food and personal care items for the dozens of teens she supervises Mondays through Fridays.
The items serve the high school-aged kids who come to the after-school drop-in center — called HQ, after a vote by the youths themselves — situated above Meals on Wheels at 541 Wyoming Ave., Scranton. Admission to the safe space is free, as are the hot meals served at dinnertime and the gently used school uniforms and casualwear, computer access, games and occasional workshops shared with the at-risk teens.
While the shelter is open from 3 to 9 p.m. to students 14 to about 19 from any local district, the kids are responsible for getting there on their own. It earned nonprofit status in 2016 and found its home in 2017 after Maher-Gray scouted the location and secured funding for its programs as well as volunteers (mostly college students) for staff. It took plenty of paint, new carpets and flooring, and some furnishing to make the space usable, she said, but it quickly became a hot spot as word spread. From October 2017 to June 2018, NEPA Youth Shelter welcomed 113 kids, with an average 35 coming through each day. The number spikes to almost 60 during special programs, such as holiday parties.
The organization receives limited grants earmarked for specific projects from the Scranton Area Foundation and the Robert H. Spitz Foundation. Local groups such as the Junior League of Scranton, rotaries and churches sometimes send in checks, but the shelter largely relies on private donations and fundraising to remain operational.
In Times of Need, Northeast Pennsylvania comes to the aid of its own. This column, usually appearing Wednesdays in Weekend Times, provides a platform for area residents facing a variety of obstacles to create awareness and connect them with much-needed help. This special, expanded edition takes a look at what the NEPA Youth Shelter does for local teens seeking a safe space and how the public can help.
Kids start streaming in to NEPA Youth Shelter around 3 p.m. after they walk over from school, though “the colder it is, the faster they arrive,” Maher-Gray said. “And after a rainstorm, they come in doused. We do their laundry so they have warm clothes to walk home in.”
Each visitor signs in, and though Maher-Gray doesn’t see the same exact group every day, some do come every afternoon. The majority are high school sophomores, Maher-Gray estimated, who are not yet old enough to work but do not want to go home where they have no adult supervision. A handful are enrolled in cyber school and come for socialization they don’t get at home. As time wears on, some age out or find jobs and visit less frequently (though many stop in on their days off, Maher-Gray noted), and by that time, they’ve started bringing in their younger siblings.
In Scranton School District, 125 students have qualified as homeless so far for the 2018-2019 school year under the standards set by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, according to Erin Keating, the district’s homeless and foster liaison. These standards are more broad than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition, which describes “homeless” as non-human conditions; McKinney-Vento explained “homeless” means children and youth who lack “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
Maher-Gray won’t be surprised to see numbers climb as the year goes on, and she noted that most official figures don’t reflect the true size of the problem since they rely on self-reporting.
Right now, six of the dozens who cycle through NEPA Youth Shelter have identified themselves as truly homeless, though each is 18 or older. Four of the six dropped out to work full-time. NEPA Youth Shelter does not function as an overnight safehouse, though Maher-Gray is working to secure another structure for that purpose.
Many teens feel reticent to share the horrors of home with Maher-Gray and her volunteers, though breakthroughs happen all the time. Sometimes it takes the right volunteer for kids to identify as a safe person to confide in, and so representation among helpers can make all the difference.
She recalled one young boy, still in school, who finally shared with a volunteer that he had left home because it was “so bad, you don’t want to know.” While he declined to give more details, he admitted to sleeping in a tree in Nay Aug Park, where he also bathed in Roaring Brook. The teen warned the staff member not to report him or come looking for him because he would run, but he did return to the shelter to accept clean clothes and eat. It’s precarious situations like this that make the shelter so vital, Maher-Gray said.
“I want to be really thoughtful about how we find kids. How do we introduce ourselves to the teen community to gain trust and respect so that when they’re in crisis, they come to us for help?” Maher-Gray said. “I feel I have a good rapport now because I’m not fake. The kids trust me and know they can talk to me, and they do, from boyfriend/girlfriend problems to living problems or friend issues. I treat them like little adults — to a certain extent — which is the beauty of not being their parent. I never engage in a power struggle; I don’t need to assert my authority. Just listening without preparing an answer or response is half the battle.
“They have such potential and have the hopes and dreams of any other teens. If I can do anything to create opportunities, I do.”
‘Everybody’s friends here’
On a recent afternoon, a couple teens explained what they like about NEPA Youth Shelter and what they wish other kids knew about it.
“I like that it’s diverse. They act like we’re their kids here,” said 14-year-old Jahir, who has come to the shelter for two years. “They feed us here. Other places you have to pay; here it’s free. I usually suggest this place to a lot of people.”
“Everybody’s friends here. There’s no disrespect,” said 18-year-old Izayah. “Everybody’s here for each other. That’s what I like about it. When you come here, everybody’s nice.”
That same day, Paul Datti, who serves on the shelter’s board of directors, dropped into HQ to check in with Maher-Gray, whom he described as a “saint among saints.”He described his involvement with the shelter as a natural extension of his “very social justice-oriented” curriculum at University of Scranton, where he is a professor and director of the counseling and human services program.
“I think one of the misconceptions of at-risk kids is that they’re troublemakers. But they’re the sweetest, most responsible kids,” Datti said. “These kids manage the day-to-day better (than adults). Literally, they’re more helpful, thoughtful. They just need a chance.”
The one thing Maher-Gray has zero tolerance for is drug abuse, though the kids police each other on that point, she noted.
Maher-Gray maintains a “good working relationship” with Lackawanna County’s office of Youth & Family Services for instances when intervention is needed, but she said that for anyone over 18, support and services can be hard to come by. Most bus systems stop running around 5:45 p.m., so teens with late-night jobs have no transportation home at the end of their shifts. Many walk hours each way to work and don’t graduate because they miss too many school days while trying to balance employment with attendance.
“If you want to stay in school, it’s really hard when you’re homeless,” Maher-Gray said. “All of this stems because they’re the working poor. They’re handsome, smart, not drug-abusers, not mentally ill, of all ethnicities. They don’t have phones or IDs or cars or showers or clean clothes, and it sets up a vicious cycle of being unable to work. They walk around doing nothing, and to some it appears to be (laziness), but there’s just no stability.
“They all think they can do it on their own. They don’t tell anybody, and by the time they do, they’ve dug their hole so deep, it’s incredibly hard (to get out). They’re mostly overlooked because they already have this fatalism because they’re mostly (people of color). They don’t see the point in investing in themselves.”
Safe overnight options for local youths in crisis are practically nonexistent. Teens 18 and older can stay in adult shelters, though they often find themselves targets there, Maher-Gray said. She recalled watching a boy who seemed to take more than necessary from the shelter’s supply of soaps, deodorants and other personal hygiene products. She later discovered he used the items as currency on nights he had to stay in the adult shelter — giving them to others either as payment to watch over him while he slept or else to leave him alone.
Valley Youth House of Wilkes-Barre, which accepts people 18 to 24, is at capacity and has a wait list.
“In the meantime, kids sleep wherever they can, (like) a friend’s house until they wear out their welcome,” Maher-Gray said. “I want to have a shelter, because they do stupid stuff, like breaking into places or sleeping in cars or selling drugs, because they feel they don’t have other options. They come here (to the shelter) to avoid entanglement in drugs or dealing. But in survival mode, you’re desperate.”
Too often, kids who used to visit the shelter disappear altogether. Occasionally Maher-Gray learns they accepted rides to other places where they hoped to stay with friends or family and are never heard from again. Some get swept up into forced sex work and similarly horrific situations by adults who take advantage of their desperation, loneliness and lack of adult supervision.
“Even Scranton kids become involved in human trafficking. It was pretty shocking to me, especially since what attracted me to the area was how family-oriented it is,” said Maher-Gray, who came to NEPA by way of Spokane, Washington. “But it’s not a third-world problem. It happens here. I learned more about the seedy underbelly (that exists) locally.”
And yet she doesn’t lose hope or succumb to burnout and despair. Instead, Maher-Gray feels galvanized by the kids who rely on her to fight for them and find creative ways to enhance the shelter.
“I am somebody who doesn’t take no for an answer. When there’s an obstacle, I work really hard to get around it,” she said.
Sometimes it’s about making HQ feel like a normal hangout or cafe. In the Hub — which contains a kitchen, tables and chairs, and a television area — youths can sit down to a hot meal each night thanks to the chefs downstairs at Meals on Wheels.
The kids love to eat in large groups together, Maher-Gray said, and their favorite meals include chicken fingers with mashed potatoes, tacos and breakfast for dinner. Some meals fall flat — everyone hated eggplant Parmesan except Maher-Gray and the “one Italian kid” present, she said — and most meals are pork-free to be sensitive to religious observances.
An information board in the Hub offers brochures on everything from the Women’s Resource Center to LGBTQ sexual health (“We are gender-affirming and welcoming here,” Maher-Gray said) to suicide prevention to PA CareerLink. The center also posted helplines for utility companies as well as sign-up sheets for free tickets to see the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, to join educational programs at the Everhart Museum or to be included in holiday food giveaways.
Other popular spots within the shelter include the makeshift recording studio and art room, which serve as creative outlets for the kids to express their emotions and skills. A billiard room houses a beat-up pool table and bent cues, an air hockey game and basketball hoop; a small library is nearby.
The “nap room” consists of a bed tucked into a corner at the end of a long hallway, where kids can take turns grabbing a few hours of sleep safely before leaving the shelter each night. The teens have access to computer labs with printers to do research and homework. They also can take items from the storeroom stocked with personal care, hygiene and household supplies, and two clothing closets — one comprised of school uniforms, the other casualwear.
Laughter, banter and friendly conversation fill the shelter each afternoon. But before the end of the night, the signs of instability become more evident. One teen spends the last hour before the shelter closes at 9 p.m. calling and texting everyone he knows to try to find a place to sleep for the night. Others bundle up even tighter than before for the cold walk home in the dark.
But with the community’s help and support, NEPA Youth Shelter can remain a place — with caring people — that they can rely on.
“What I want people to (think) is, ‘What if this was your kid?’,” Datti said. “Your donation can impact their lives.”
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5369; @pwildingTT on Twitter
Snacks: Cookies, crackers, Pop-Tarts, chips, granola and cereal bars, candy (without peanuts), boxes of cereal and individual-serving bags or boxes
Drinks: Bottled and flavored waters, Yoo-hoo, juice, Kool-Aid, iced tea and lemonade (no carbonated drinks)
Miscellaneous food items: Barbecue sauce, butter, salad dressings, vegetable oil, macaroni and cheese, pasta, sauce, Parmesan cheese, garlic salt, red pepper flakes, tomato soup, chicken soup and salsa
Clothing: New only, in adult sizes — bras, underwear, T-shirts, school uniform pants (tan and navy; no cargo style), school uniform shirts (three buttons down, collared and plain in red, pink, white, navy, light blue and yellow; school logos are not required, but they cannot have corporate logos; also gently used and clean regular clothes
Laundry supplies: Detergent, dryer sheets, color catchers, fabric softener and stain remover
Personal care products (full, not trial/travel size): Deodorant; shampoo and conditioner; combs, picks and brushes; hair bands and elastics; hair oils, gels and sprays; nail polish and nail polish remover; make-up and make-up remover products; acne products; body soap; nail clippers; tweezers; shaving cream and aftershave; razors; body lotion; feminine hygiene products; Band-Aids
Miscellaneous: Metal spoons, dinner napkins, plastic cups, plastic spoons, paper towels, pool sticks and chalk, darts with plastic tips, metal storage shelves and disposable hot cups with lids
How to donate
Call the shelter at 570-909-9671 to make arrangements for drop-offs any weekday between noon and 7 p.m.; Saturdays also are available by appointment.
For monetary donations, send checks payable to NEPA Youth Shelter to 541 Wyoming Ave., Scranton, PA 18509, or any local PNC Bank location; visit Go FundMe.com; pay via PayPal; charge a card by calling the shelter; or set up a monthly bill through checking accounts. For more information, email nepayouth
email@example.com or visit nepayouthshelter.org.
By the numbers
2016-2017 school year (Lackawanna County)
Total homeless youths, by McKinney-Vento standards
Homeless in kindergarten through fifth grade
Homeless in sixth through eighth grades
Homeless in ninth through 12th grades
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education
2017-2018 school year (Scranton School District)
Total number of students enrolled
Number of students who qualified as homeless, by McKinney-Vento standards
Homeless in pre-K
Homeless in kindergarten through fifth grade
Homeless in sixth through eighth grades
Homeless in ninth through 12th grades
2018-2019 school year (Scranton School District)
Total number of students enrolled
Number of children who have qualified as homeless by McKinney-Vento standards so far this year
Source: Erin Keating, Chief of Leadership Development and School Operations, and homeless and foster liaison, for scranton school district
Total homeless population
Total family households experiencing homelessness
Unaccompanied young adults 18 to 24 experiencing homelessness
In comparing the numbers of unaccompanied young adults, Pennsylvania leads over nearby New Jersey, which has 492; Delaware, 45; West Virginia, 79; and Maryland, 272. Wyoming, meanwhile, claimed 873 as homeless throughout the entire state, encompassing all demographics, compared to Pennsylvania’s more than 14,000.
Source: U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, usich.gov; community point-in-time counts conducted in January 2017, as reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The rate of homelessness in each state is calculated using U.S. Census 2017 Population Estimates.