NOTE: At their request, the names of the teenagers mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identities. As a consequence, no photographs were taken of the subjects in this article. Instead, we’re sharing photos about the work Project R.I.S.E. does.
Sony headphones hang around Jamal’s neck when he walks in. He smiles big. When I ask him what he wants to do after graduation, he perks up.
“Actually, I want to be a lawyer. I’ve always been a good debater and good at thinking on my feet,” he says. He begins listing his school activities, which include DECA, which is a program that prepares students for careers in marketing, management, finance and entrepreneurship. He enjoys basketball and plays the trumpet.
When I ask how it felt being evicted, his posture tightens. His hazel eyes, which were animated moments earlier by talk of his future, have lost their spark. His tall, slim legs nervously shake. He stops meeting my eyes.
“It was really hard. There were times I’d just sit in class with a blank stare, just thinking like ‘What next?’ It was weird. It was scary.”
Debra Manteghi is the Homeless Education Liaison and Project Manager for Project RISE (Realizing Individual Strength through Education), where she has worked for 17 years. She says 1,752 homeless youth like Jamal were identified in Akron last year, and the numbers keep growing.
“Think of yourself as a teenager. What would you be without your parents? Without your home? How would you function?” Manteghi asks.
Surprisingly, she says, teens like Jamal are among the luckiest. Of Akron’s 452 homeless high schoolers, 116 are considered “unaccompanied,” or lacking any parental involvement. Some of these youth get help from a relative, who can sometimes get temporary guardianship. But the reality for young people otherwise on their own can be heartbreaking.
“We have a student living in a tent right now. We’ve had situations where a school counselor will find out that they’re staying in an apartment somewhere, or their car, or they were either couch surfing or staying at an abandoned building,” Manteghi says.
Other times, a parent may be present but circumstances can force families to separate as they “double up” with others families for weeks. In a similar situation, Jamal was split from his mom and younger brother.
“Throughout my 16 years, I’d never been away from my mom throughout all the stuff that we went through. The scariest part was like not knowing,” says Jamal.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 27.5 percent of Akron residents, including more than 40 percent of children in Akron, are living in poverty. Manteghi says that homelessness can happen when complicated family problems overwhelm the structure.
“You’re going to find factors of mental health issues and substance abuse. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist on the other end [of the socioeconomic spectrum], but those people are more likely to seek out resources to get help. They can afford attorneys, they can afford to get therapists, they can keep their problems sheltered somewhat,” Manteghi says.
Although school counselors are readily available and trained to help students in these complex situations, they can only use the resources available to them, which requires creativity. North High School counselors, for example, work with teachers to develop a support system for the students at school that help bring the teens back on track when their attendance suffers and they lose credits.
“I think that at first [the students] are sort of closed off, but then after you build a relationship with them it’s pretty easy to talk to them. The other thing is sometimes they see we’re trying to help them as best we can so they become less apprehensive and more likely to come talk to us and ask for help,” says North High School counselor Brian Caperones.
Because of their circumstances, many teens become mistrustful and defensive, so it’s critical that school staff and teachers, like Caperones, build relationships.
To donate to Project RISE, you can call Debra Manteghi at 330-761-2969, or email her at email@example.com. She says they frequently need bath and beauty products and socks and underwear, as well as jeans.
To donate to Street Outreach Services, please call 234-571-2807.
One such student was Imani, who Caperones described as “a ball of energy” and usually “boisterous.” But during the interview, Imani sat as far away from me as possible and provided little information. The longer we sat, the more Imani seemed to crawl inside of herself. She spent the majority of the interview spinning the cord to her white Samsung headphones around her index finger and avoiding questions. The room was thick with resentment and unease.
“She was a lot different than I thought she’d be, but I think it’s a difficult topic to broach and discuss. It’s really personal, and they’re not trustworthy because of situations that happen,” says Caperones.
Despite this, the teens aren’t unreachable and the problems, although tough to resolve, aren’t unfixable. Community members can donate to organizations such as Project RISE or the Shelter Care – Street Outreach Service Drop In Center in Akron. Project RISE works with school counselors and local homeless shelters to provide additional resources to displaced students. They ensure that students have bus passes, transportation to and from school and tutoring. The Street Outreach Center provides emergency care to students in the form of food, transportation, clothing, laundry and showers, as well as applications for food stamps, health care and housing needs.
“It takes money to run programs, to train people,” says Manteghi. “The reality is that you have to have funding to have good programming, trained people, [and for] services to be in place. It’s important for people in the community to support those efforts, and if they want to help in other ways, get involved.”
Community members can also help by using their skills and passions to raise awareness. An example of this is Tyron Hoisten, who for the last five years has worked closely with Manteghi and used his skills as a playwright to alert the community. His last play, “This Is Life” was featured at the Akron-Summit County Public Library in September.
“Drama is a great way to impact and inspire people and get them looking at something that is around them all the time but they probably haven’t even noticed. I think it’s too easy to write people off and label them as thugs or this or that,” says Hoisten. “The ultimate lesson would be that there are young people that are in unfortunate situations and you may be able to do something about it.”
Cassandra was the third teen I met. She dreams of going to Kent State University’s fashion school to become a fashion designer. When we met, she sported a Rubber City Clothing brand t-shirt, which seemed an extension of the way she sees herself: fiercely independent.
“I don’t really rely on anyone ever. I just don’t like to rely on people. [I] try to be there for myself,” Cassandra says.
It was something she learned the hard way, switching homes and being forced to live apart from her five siblings—an experience that was “strange [and] uncomfortable” for her.
While transitioning and facing homelessness with her family, Cassandra admits to needing support, but feeling like she couldn’t talk to anyone. Because of her shy personality and quiet demeanor, it’s easy to understand how tough it must have been for Cassandra to reach out to someone.
These teens, like hundreds of their peers in Akron, are linked by their struggles and the obstacles they face, but they’re also connected by the hopes they carry for their futures. No matter what they achieve, it’s certain they won’t take it for granted.
Ready with a lesson to share, Jamal says, “Appreciate what you got, because you never know when it’s going to end.”