For those involved with Dallas’ new Fannie C. Harris Youth Center, ditching the stigma of homeless shelters is important.
No cafeteria-style soup and sandwich servers. No cots stuffed into a giant room. No often-dirty bathrooms. Instead, personal dorm rooms, community centers, driving lessons, and on-site counselors ready to point teenagers in the direction of housing, employment, and education.
(ABOVE: Officials from After8toEducate, Promise House, and more celebrate the opening of the Harris Youth Center in Dallas. Courtesy After8toEducate)
For Jorge Baldor, founder of After8toEducate, specialized shelters aimed at teenagers are vital to curbing the number of homeless adults in Dallas and beyond.
“We’re trying to re-write the book on homeless shelters by offering a more individualized approach,” he said. “Not only are these kids facing normal adolescent issues, but they have abandonment issues from being homeless.”
After8toEducate, an organization focusing on homeless youth in Dallas, reports that the number of homeless students attending Dallas ISD schools exceeds 3,500. Without a place to live, the percentage of students that then drop out of school skyrockets – leading to eventual homelessness as an adult.
And with foster centers focused mostly on children younger than 12, homeless teens often find themselves with few options.
“Teens need a place to rest their head, and catch their breath, just like any other homeless adult,” Baldor said.
The total number of homeless youth reported in the country varies, depending on the study, Baldor said. Many teenagers living under bridges and in cars often don’t get reported, he said.
“The numbers you see, most of those that report them are relying on self-reporting, but there’s no benefit to doing that,” Baldor said. “What I can say, the numbers that are being reported nationally and locally are way lower than what is actually going on.
“At minimum, there are hundreds of students that aren’t even on a couch – they are under a bridge or in a car. That level of living is what we’re targeting the most.”
At the Harris Center, a repurposed former DISD campus near Fair Park, teens will have their own space: a dormitory, complete with a bed, desk, and closet. There are ample bathrooms, and two community rooms that can host up to 50 people. Employment, education, housing, and medical needs are all addressed through officials on hand.
Teens staying at the center are encouraged to help with chores, and do well in school; progress such as this leads to accumulating points, which the teens can then cash in for on-site driving lessons.
“When they are here, they’ll receive attention just like they’re normal teenagers,” Baldor said. “It’s important that they get assimilated into the real world, and driving lessons are a big part of that. What teen doesn’t want to learn how to drive?”
And as the center endures its final construction updates, Baldor said he is continuing to focus on the big picture provided by the Harris Center – hope.
“You might have a valedictorian that comes out of a shelter like this,” he said.