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Ages 18 to 25 fast-growing segment of homeless in East Texas

By Glenn Evans
Nov. 28, 2015 at 11 p.m.

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Robert Shuler is studying to pass the General Educational Development exam and wants to be a mechanic.

Nathaniel "Nate" Watson, also 18 and homeless like Shuler, boards a Tatum ISD bus daily from the Hiway 80 Rescue Mission.

"I'm trying to be the best-looking guy on the application stack," said Watson, who has a learning disability arising from autism. "I'm a jack of all trades and a master of none. I'm really good at gardening."

The two young men are among a population that mission Executive Director Eric Burger said has replaced a more traditional segment of the area homeless population.

"The younger age is bigger than it used to be," Burger said, citing a Hiway 80 snapshot survey revealing 8.1 percent of his residents are between 18 and 25 years old. "That, in the past, has been around 3 percent. That is a trend change from what it's been in the past. ... That's a shift from the 55-year-old alcoholic."

The snapshot's percentage of homeless people 65 years or older is 2.4 percent, almost mirroring the 3 percent that used to be Burger's young adult clientele.

"It is also now regular that we have high school kids that are staying with us as adults," he said, "Maybe five a year."

That "adult" designation allows a lone teen to spend nights in the West Marshall Avenue men's shelter. It does not account for the teens and younger children staying with their mothers in the mission's nearby Women and Family Shelter.

But lone young men experiencing homelessness in their late teens and early 20s are undeniably a growing local phenomenon.

Poverty initiative

The trend occurs even as a coalition of nonprofit agencies and the city of Longview take early steps prompted by an Oct. 15 Poverty Conference. About 500 people attended the symposium, and about 50 of them crowded the Junior League of Longview headquarters a month later to brainstorm ideas.

Revealing moments in that Nov. 16 forum included Longview City Councilwoman Nona Snoddy's description of trying to find shelter for a 14-year-old student.

The reasons behind that unidentified teen's dilemma were not delved into during the public meeting. But elements Shuler and Watson described from their own younger days might be familiar to the boy — absent or ineffective parenting, difficulty identifying opportunities, substance abuse and aimlessness.

Homeless and 18

"I'd wake up around 2 or 3 p.m., go fishing, get done, go cook something for dinner," Shuler said, describing a typical day before coming to the shelter about five months ago. "After dinner, take a shower then go to the store, get a six-pack. After the six-pack, do tattoos and then just play video games till I fell asleep."

A maintenance and kitchen employee of the mission now, Shuler admits to difficulty trusting people. He has no friends his age, he said.

"I had one, but he's dead now," he said. "When I trust you, I trust you. But if I don't trust you, you're down here."

He's enrolled in Hiway 80's New Creation Discipleship Program and wore a black T-shirt bearing the word, "Forgiven," in white letters. He said he has smoked cigarettes since he was 9 years old — half his life.

"Honestly, if I quit smoking, I could probably do this program," he said. "I could probably stay out of trouble."

Watson describes a typical day, pre-Hiway 80, in fewer words than his fellow teen.

"I'd just be texting all day," he said.

Watson came to the shelter three months ago, after staying with friends

"My parents and I had a disagreement, or more like a difference of opinion," he said. "My friends had to take me back to my house, because they got kicked out of their house. ... I was on my own for about three days."

Watson travels to Tatum ISD under the McKinney Act, which Burger said allows homeless public school students to remain in their home districts. Watson, who spends many afternoons fishing for prizes on discarded McDonald's cups, said he wants to be a working student — with a little help.

"I would love to see the city actually help me find a job," Watson said. "Because I've had no luck. ... For one, the stores around here, managers need to open their eyes that not everybody is in a good situation right now. I went to three places and was turned down because I live in a shelter."

Education needed

Brenda Day-Bevis, executive director of a nonprofit agency that offers transitional housing, job and life skills training to young people, said Watson and Shuler are not alone in being young and homeless.

"There's a lot of education that needs to happen," she said. "I didn't get it either, because it hadn't been a part of my life."

Day-Bevis said her agency, D.O.R.S., or Developing Opportunities, Reaching Success, was turned down for a grant to help people in their early 20s with practical help finding and keeping work.

"They couldn't understand why we would have to help a person in their early 20s get a job without transportation, get a birth certificate," Day-Bevis said. "She said the (foundation's) board couldn't understand why anyone in their 20s would need help with something like that. Then, your board doesn't understand poverty."

D.O.R.S. offers a transitional housing program for young people ages 15 to 25, along with guidance aimed at taking them from homelessness to independence.

But the need keeps growing.

"The numbers are not diminishing at all," Day-Bevis said. "They are not diminishing at all. Every day, young people are coming in or calling us to say, 'Can you help me?' ... When we help this population, it's going to change not only their lives and the lives of their family, it's going to improve our whole community."

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