Teresa Owens was just 13 years old and living in Torrance, California, when she boarded a train to Sacramento. Traveling alone, she carried in her bag just a toothbrush and a few items of clothing. Owens, now 24, recalls arriving in the city she had no personal connection to and had never before visited. “I just picked it because I recognized the name.”
After stepping off the train, she headed downtown. “I found a place in the downstairs of a parking garage by the jail. A lot of homeless sleep there. The first night I didn’t sleep at all,” says Owens. Yet over days and weeks, the people she met in the bowels of the parking garage grew into a sort of family for the young teen. “We took care of each other.” She made the garage her home for the next several months, stealing food and clothing to survive.
Owens had come to Sacramento fleeing a chaotic home life in Southern California. Her parents—her mother was born in Havana, her father hailed from Mississippi—had been childhood sweethearts, but the family had come upon hard times. The family moved often because of evictions and unstable employment. Arguments were frequent. When the couple split in 2001, Owens lived with her mother and five siblings.
Owens remembers when she was 9 and the family was residing in a hotel. “We would get dropped off by the bus, and my mom used to always meet us at the bus stop. But one day she wasn’t there, so we walked home. The door was unlocked but nobody was there. So we waited and waited and waited,” says Owens. Her younger siblings grew hungry, so Owens made them some eggs, catching the small kitchen on fire. The children managed to put it out themselves. “But nobody came and checked on us for like a week.”
Her mother, who had become addicted to drugs, was eventually reunited with Owens and her siblings but was unable to provide a stable home life for her children in spite of experiencing periods of sobriety. The turmoil in the home weighed heavily on Owens, who eventually took matters into her own hands.
“I got tired of it,” she says. “My mom was really struggling. She was taking all her anger out on me. I got tired of all the mental and physical abuse.”
With no other family to turn to, she made the decision to leave and start a new life in Sacramento.
A year after Owens moved out, her mother, trying to get her life together, located her and moved the family to Sacramento. Owens left the streets and spent the next four years living with her siblings and mother. It was not a peaceful existence, but Owens developed strategies for surviving at home. “I just let my mom get angry,” she says. “I tried to keep my cool.” In 2012, she graduated from Luther Burbank High School, the first in her family to earn a high school diploma.
At age 19, Owens became pregnant with her daughter. She was smitten with the child, who bears a strong resemblance to her. Suffering from depression and struggling to get by financially, however, she found herself wholly unprepared for motherhood. She loved her baby but was deeply unhappy living with the child’s father and his mother. “I had to cook, clean, do everything as a wife, but he didn’t do anything around the house and he didn’t have a job,” says Owens. Around that time, she also discovered he had been unfaithful to her.
One evening, an argument with his mother turned violent. “Everything was coming out at once, all the depression, all the anger. I couldn’t take it. I knew I was going to explode—and I did,” recalls Owens. “Something told me, ‘Teresa, you need to go.’ So I left for Los Angeles in the middle of the night. My mistake was that I didn’t take my daughter with me.”
She stayed with an aunt for two days before being kicked out. Owens eventually made her way back to Sacramento after a month living on the streets of Los Angeles. At age 20, she was homeless once again, unemployed and estranged from her daughter. Feeling hopeless, she couldn’t see a way forward.
It was around this time that Owens’ life took an unexpected turn. She was hanging out with a friend who needed to go to Wind Youth Services’ drop-in center to get help obtaining a government ID card. What Owens found there gave her hope: a warm meal, clean clothing, bus passes, compassionate staffers who wanted to help her find employment and housing.
Teresa Owens, who has been homeless, now shares a three-bedroom house in Oak Park with two roommates. She credits Wind Youth Services with helping her find housing and employment. “When they told me they could help me find a job and a place to live, I couldn’t believe it,” she says.
“Wind helped me with so much,” says Owens. “When they told me they could help me find a job and a place to live, I couldn’t believe it.” She soon became a regular at the drop-in center.
Unfortunately, Owens took a step backward even as she was making progress at Wind. “I started running with the wrong crowd. I was dating a guy whose friends did drugs—cocaine. I started getting into it, too.” The partying caught up with her when she was involved in a bloody altercation outside a Subway sandwich shop that led to a 4-month jail term.
Owens was released in January 2017 and quickly returned to Wind to get back on track. She had been heartened that some members of the staff had written to her while she was in jail, and she was shocked that they were still working on finding housing for her when she was released. They hadn’t given up on her.
While Owens waited for her housing placement, her mother offered her a place to stay at her trailer home, but she didn’t want to be a burden. “I told my mom, ‘I don’t need to put more stress on you. I’ll just go.’” So for about six months, Owens and four friends slept behind the dugouts at McClatchy Park, just a short distance from Wind’s Oak Park drop-in center.
Owens recounts her daily schedule then: “Wake up. Go charge our phones at the big stage in the park where they have outlets. Then we would wait until Wind opened, go there, eat breakfast, take a shower, maybe do some laundry or go to a meeting. We would keep our clothes and important papers at the lockers at Wind.” In the summer months, they would swim at McClatchy pool.
In August, Owens finally got a housing placement through a Wind program. She and two roommates (one of whom slept behind the dugouts with her) share a three-bedroom house in Oak Park where Wind will help with rent payments for a short period until she finds permanent employment, which the organization is also assisting with. As Owens puts it, “I needed someone to have my back, and Wind does. They give me hope.”
Wind Youth Services has been providing services—and hope—to youth experiencing homelessness in Sacramento since its founding in 1994 by two Catholic nuns, Stephana O’Leary and Mary Anne Bonpane. In 2016, 1,173 individuals came through Wind’s doors, and the organization is on track to serve at least that many people in 2017, according to executive director Suzi Dotson.
Wind executive director Suzi Dotson looks forward to the organization’s move to a new space at Eighth and S streets this winter. She says Wind will serve nearly 1,200 youth this year.
There are lots of reasons that a young person might become homeless, none of them easy to remedy. “Every journey is different, but the No. 1 reason we see for youth leaving home is some kind of family conflict,” says Dotson. “It could be an LGBT youth whose parents are not accepting of that. Some young people would rather live on the street than suffer that constant aggression.” Dotson estimates that about 40 percent of Wind’s clientele identify as LGBT.
“We also see extreme family poverty,” Dotson continues. “It’s especially common at age 18 for those parents to say, ‘You’re an adult now; you’ve got to go out on your own.’ We also see lots of abuse and neglect in homes. That’s why kids seek refuge at Wind. It’s not that they can’t go home, but they don’t want to be at home because it’s more risky there.” Youth who have mental illness or have aged out of foster care are also at risk for becoming homeless.
Wind, which will move from the cramped quarters of its Oak Park drop-in center to spacious new digs at Eighth and S streets this winter, offers a continuum of services to clients. The overall aim is to prevent homeless youth from becoming chronically homeless adults.
“I don’t think we are going to end poverty, but I want to have an answer when a young person walks through the door and asks, ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight?’ That is success to me,” says Dotson.
It starts with outreach, both on the streets and at local high schools. Wind’s street outreach team goes out five days a week to engage with youth and to distribute food, clothing, tarps, camping gear and supplies for safe sex. The team’s main goal is to convince the youth to visit the drop-in center where they can connect to a wider array of services.
“Once they get to the drop-in center, we can really engage with them. Whether it’s their first day homeless or it’s been a long time, we really focus on family engagement and family finding,” explains Dotson. “We want to keep them off the streets, because that’s where the trauma happens. Sexual assault happens, drugs happen, they encounter an older person who takes them in but may exploit them.”
When family reunification is not feasible, Wind works with youth to help them gain stability and independence. Caseworkers connect them to emergency shelters, employment services, housing programs, therapeutic groups, mental health services and educational assistance—all the elements they need to move their lives forward. “What we model our programs after is developmentally appropriate parenting,” says Dotson.
Wind’s new drop-in center, which was funded by a $1 million gift from Golden 1 Credit Union, will allow the organization to expand and improve upon existing services and do more in the area of prevention. Perhaps most importantly, the center will continue to be a place where youth can find people who care.
Daishawn McFadden, center program manager at Wind, says the connections that youth make at the drop-in center can be life changing. “They trust you, they build that rapport with you. This is their safe space,” she explains. “You could potentially save their life just by listening to them, letting them cry it out, giving them the support that they need and never had. They need to know that you’re not abandoning them, that you don’t expect anything in return.”
It is tough emotional work for staff. “You have to have a heart to do this type of work,” says McFadden. “You might have all these different things happening in the same hour—somebody who’s been homeless for a year finally finds a family member who can help them get off the street; another person who is experiencing homelessness for the first time comes in and thinks they’re going to get housing right away; somebody got raped last night and needs help. When I first started working here, it was really hard for me. I wish we had housing for everyone.”
It is worth noting that interventions for youth who are homeless differ from what an adult with more life experience might need. “The youth who come to us have no job history, no experience running a household,” explains Dotson. “Also, homeless adults may have cars to help them get around or to sleep in, but most of our youth don’t have vehicles, so they might be more visible on the street.”
That visibility isn’t necessarily a good thing. “Homelessness is one of those polarizing topics right now,” Dotson says. “And while kids are a little more cuddly than a chronically homeless adult, we also have some rough-looking teenagers, and not everybody is sympathetic to 18-year-olds living on the street.”
Dotson knows that Sacramento’s growing homeless population has hardened some hearts, but she pleads for compassion. “When you see a young person on the street, encourage them to visit Wind. Talk to them. I think that goes for all homeless people. Look them in the eye and say hello, say good morning. It’s part of being human. A kind word can really change somebody’s life, especially for young people, because they’re used to no one paying attention to them at all.”
Daishawn McFadden, center program manager at Wind, says it takes “a heart to do this type of work.” She wishes Wind had housing for everyone who needs it.
Wind needs practical assistance, too, as the organization embarks on a capital campaign to purchase its new building. Monetary donations, mentoring, food and clothing all help keep the organization functioning. “We need the community to wrap their arms around these young people and help us,” says Dotson. “If our numbers keep rising in Sacramento, these kids are just going to become part of the chronically homeless that we’ll be counting later.”
For Teresa Owens, Wind has been a lifeline. Not only does she now have a stable roof over her head, but she has hope for a better future. “I want to be a master chef. I love to cook. Someday I’d like to open my own restaurant.” When we spoke with her, she was days away from training for a food service job at Golden 1 Center. “Without Wind, I would be on the streets for sure. I’d be on drugs again, I’d be back stealing, all that stuff.”
Owens still visits the drop-in center regularly to attend employment classes or creative workshops, or to eat a hot a meal. “My favorite things are what Denise, one of the staff, cooks. She makes the best chicken Alfredo ever. And I love her jambalaya.”
Owens is also working hard to build a life that will allow her to reunite with her daughter, who is now a toddler and living with her father. “My dream is to be a role model for my daughter. I miss her every day. I write her letters telling her how much I love her, that I’m working hard to get her back, no matter what it takes.”