Whether it’s assisting a girl who sleeps in a tent or a boy who spends each night on a different friend’s couch, WIND Youth Services helps local homeless teens get an education, a hot meal or simply a dose of compassion.
WIND Youth Services, the only organization in the Sacramento area that caters exclusively to homeless youths, is in the business of helping young people put their lives back together. Through its emergency shelter, day center and school, the North Sacramento-based nonprofit serves a population largely ignored in public policy and programs for the homeless.
“That’s a gap that we fill,” says JD Rudometkin, director of development and community outreach at WIND. “There are places in town where mothers and babies can be housed, but we are basically the only place in town where teens can be housed.”
A 2008 homeless count found that in Sacramento County, nearly 2,700 people are either living in an emergency or transitional shelter or on the streets. That figure does not account for the scores of people—many of them teens—who are chronically “couch surfing” without a stable place to call home. Although many young people in those situations do not define themselves as homeless, WIND does.
“We don’t look at homelessness in the typical way,” explains Ellyne Bell, WIND’s executive director. “People think of homeless as down and out, sleeping in a camp or in a car. But kids who are bouncing from family to family or friend to friend, sleeping on somebody’s floor—they are homeless, too.”
Seeking a Safe Haven
Angie Wilson’s broad smile and warm, earnest manner draw you in almost immediately. At age 17, she is articulate beyond her years and brims with youthful confidence. She is the rare teen who has perfected the seemingly lost art of looking adults in the eye and offering a hearty handshake upon introduction. Yet in many respects, Wilson is typical of her peers: She loves listening to her favorite bands, enjoys hanging out with her friends and is working hard at school to ensure admission into the college of her choice.
That is why it comes as somewhat of a shock to learn where Wilson lives: “In a tent.” She says this without the slightest trace of self-pity, but her eyes betray her anguish. For the past year, her only protection from the elements (natural and human) has been her tiny fabric dwelling and the street smarts she’s acquired living the past six years as a homeless teen.
Wilson has not had a steady home since she was 11, when her mother’s worsening drug habit made keeping a roof over their heads impossible. Since that time, the teen has moved back and forth among friends’ couches, shelters, cheap motels and the streets, at times accompanied by her mother but often on her own.
Does she ever fear for her safety? “Sometimes I do feel scared, but I know my environment very well and I know the people around there,” Wilson says. “Then again, I don’t know those people as well as I think I do. So, yes, it can be scary.”
Most evenings, Wilson seeks out a hot meal from a soup kitchen. When that doesn’t pan out, she approaches restaurants at closing time to inquire about Dumpster-bound leftovers. After eating, she bikes home and beds down for the night among her few material possessions: books (“I love reading comics”); pillows and blankets (“I don’t have any padding except for my mummy bag”); personal hygiene supplies; and a few candles.
Wilson has known few dependable adults in her life. She was 7 when she last saw her father, who lives in Oregon. Although she sees her mother several times a week (they often meet up in the field near the encampment where she lives), Wilson has little optimism that the lone parent in her life—herself homeless and still addicted to drugs—can help her break out of this cycle of poverty. For that, she is counting on WIND, her refuge from a world that has often been more cruel than kind.
“You can come here and know you’re safe without having to talk to anyone,” explains Wilson. “These people try to help you instead of telling you to just help yourself. Without WIND, I would probably be stuck with my mom somewhere sitting on the sidewalk. They’ve opened my mind to a lot of new things.”
Like getting a good education. Wilson is currently working toward earning her high school diploma from the on-site charter school WIND operates through the Twin Rivers school district. Her dreams sustain her. “College is one of the big goals in my life,” says Wilson. “I want to get as many majors as possible and see what I can do with myself.”
Hoping To Get Back on Track
DeJon DaGraca understands the dispiriting cycle of homelessness all too well. The 19-year-old came to WIND’s day center after a chance encounter with staff member Tasha Norris on the street. “I asked her for 25 cents because I needed bus money and she said, ‘Do you need clothes? Are you hungry?’ I thought she was joking at first.”
DaGraca soon began working with WIND caseworker Uylous Ingram to get his life back in order. With Ingram’s help, DaGraca is hoping to enroll in substance abuse and anger management programs following arrests for a DUI and a dispute with his girlfriend that turned physical. He’s also trying to track down basic documents—a copy of his birth certificate, legal identification and a Social Security card—in order to get a job and secure a stable place to live.
WIND’s emergency shelter, which houses youths ages 11 to 18, is unable to accommodate DaGraca because of his age. He has been staying with friends, sleeping in vacant buildings or sneaking into his girlfriend’s house for the past several months because of ongoing family disputes.
“My grandpa, he kicked me out,” says DaGraca. “I did some things at the house I wasn’t supposed to do. He said, ‘You’re gonna have to make a choice; either do that or do this.’” But the lure of drugs and alcohol proved too strong for DaGraca. He hopes with WIND’s help he’ll be able to turn things around.
“I just want them to help me get back on my feet, have me stop worrying about things,” says DaGraca quietly, his tired, dark-brown eyes cast downward. “It’s frustrating at times, but I feel better being here than being on the streets getting into trouble.” With nowhere else to go, DaGraca spends most mornings and afternoons at the day center.
He has precious few alternatives. His father lives in Florida and his mother, who moves regularly between Sacramento, Oakland and Modesto, is unable to take him in. “She’s not in a stable place right now. She has three houses she stays in,” explains DaGraca. Asked if he misses his mom, he seems resigned to her absence. “I’m kind of used to it now. I used to cry when I was younger.”
DaGraca feels “embarrassed and sad” about being homeless. “I see people going into a house and I wish I could go in there, just sit on the couch and watch TV, watch football, play with my little sister.”
With his hopes of playing professional football dashed (“I’ve gotten out of shape, done too much drugs”), DaGraca’s goals are more modest now. “I want to go to school to be a cook just like my dad.”
What might get in his way? “My baby. My girl is two months pregnant,” he says. “It’s hard because I don’t know what to do. I don’t have a roof over my head. I don’t want to be a father right now. I’m not ready. But it’s here now, it’s coming. So I’ve got to do something.”
On Their Way
Mistiee Gaston is a survivor. Mother to three teenage sons—Bryan, Kevin and Brandon Johnson—she’s been knocked down more than once but refuses to give up. Gaston found the courage to leave her abusive husband despite the fact that undiagnosed dyslexia had rendered her largely illiterate and with very limited employment prospects.
With determination and assistance from tutors, Gaston learned to read and eventually secured a good job to support her family. But on the day she received her first paycheck, she crashed her car after suffering a seizure. Persistent health problems left her struggling to stay afloat.
After four years of shuffling between shelters (some of which rejected the boys once they became teens) and the overcrowded homes of family members, Gaston and her children came to WIND. She praises the program for its family feel and for bolstering her and her sons. “They got me what I want and what I need, but they didn’t do it behind my back,” she says. “They said, ‘Come on, we’ll do it together.’”
And they did. The boys lived at the WIND shelter for several months while Gaston stayed in other shelters and worked with WIND to secure a permanent home where mother and sons could live together under one roof.
The situation wasn’t perfect, but the family made it work. Except for staff, no adults can sleep at the WIND shelter, but a leery Gaston stayed close to her sons in the beginning. “When they took the kids in, I paid someone $40 to sleep on their porch across the street just to see where my children were, to see if they were happy at WIND,” she recalls.
Their dream of creating a home, all together, finally came true in October. “It feels good, stretching out, relaxing, telling my friends I have a house now,” says 15-year-old Kevin with a smile.
While Gaston searches for work, she spends her free time supporting WIND. “Any time I come, I donate my time,” Gaston says joyfully. “I sweep their floor, clean their bathroom, make sure it’s perfectly clean, in order to build myself up, to hang around something positive.”
Her boys currently attend the WIND school and plan to go to college. Bryan and Kevin both hope to pursue careers in computers. And Gaston has her own dreams. “I want to get a job and be more independent for them and for myself,” she says. “Sometimes you just need a little bit to get on your way. I was scared at first, then I was angry, then I was frustrated, and now I’m just happy and joyful.”
WIND has given Gaston and her children a chance to smile again. “We all enjoy each other here,” she says. “We laugh. You know why? Because that’s what the children need. They need the laughter, they need the comfort, because that world out there is so hard.”
WIND Youth Services at a Glance
Founded in 1994 by the Sisters of Social Service, WIND (the acronym originally stood for Works in New Directions, a name that has since been dropped) began humbly as a day center for homeless teens near Loaves & Fishes just north of downtown Sacramento. Today, WIND has an annual budget of $1.3 million and serves hundreds of youths annually through its three core programs: a day center, a youth crisis shelter, and an on-site junior high and high school education program.
The day center offers homeless teens a safe place to get a meal, take a shower and connect with case workers and counselors who can help move them out of the cycle of homelessness.
At the 16-bed shelter, youths ages 11 to 18 live and share meals together, along with staff, and do chores around the house, much like a family.
In 2008, five teens graduated from WIND’s year-round high school, where students study the basics in addition to cooking, music, journalism, computers, physical education and art.