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  • In many instances, having a refuge can make the difference in whether a young person can arrest their slide into permanent disconnection and regain their footing. Tweet This
  • Middle-class kids and parents often take for granted the value of structure and stability in a child’s home life. The importance of this structure and stability becomes all the more apparent when it’s not there. Tweet This

Editor’s Note: The following essay is an excerpt from Anne Kim’s new book, Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection (The New Press, February 2020).

Carla is an energetic, ambitious young Latina woman with sleek, chin-length brown hair and an open, confident manner. We meet in the summer of 2018 over bubble teas at a Korean coffee shop off a busy street in Reston, Virginia, not too far from the defense contracting firm where she works full-time. Though just twenty-five years old, she is already managing multimillion-dollar projects for her firm as a procurement specialist—her bosses had quickly promoted her from the entry-level clerical job where she’d started out. She is also a homeowner as well as a mom, the proud owner of a small condo she shares with her boyfriend and two young sons. 

But it was only a few short years ago that Carla was homeless, pregnant, and struggling to stay in school. She’d run away from home after getting pregnant at age seventeen, fearing that her parents would force her to get an abortion, as they did when she was pregnant the first time, at fifteen. “I literally ran into the woods,” she says, recalling the night she left home.

After that, she spent two years “couch surfing” with friends and relatives while trying to graduate from high school and holding down a part-time job at a Wegman’s grocery store to support herself. “I was living in a lot of different places,” she says. “I was living at my sister’s house, my son’s father’s sister’s place, then my boyfriend’s friend’s place sometimes.” At one point, she stayed with her then-boyfriend’s mother, who was renting out space in her house for extra cash. She slept on the floor with at least a dozen other people, all of them adults, scattered throughout the house. “I had bedbug bites everywhere,” she says. Knowing she needed to continue her schooling, she enrolled at the Northern Virginia Community College in Fairfax County but failed all her classes. “My son was really little,” she says, “and I was going through too much.” She had not reconciled with her parents, and her son’s father had become increasingly abusive. He was eventually deported after committing assault. 

What ultimately salvaged Carla’s prospects was the help of an innovative local nonprofit called Second Story, which she’d heard about through a friend. Over the course of about four years, the organization gave her a place to stay, along with the support she needed to finish school and find a job. Second Story even set up a savings account to help her put aside $19,000, which became the down payment for her condo. Residents are required to sign over 45 percent of their net earnings to the program, which keeps the money in escrow until the women graduate. Counseling services helped Carla reunite with her family. 

Aiding Carla was Second Story’s “transitional living” program, a model that offers homeless young people—such as runaways like Carla or youth aging out of foster care or leaving the justice system—a temporary place to stay as well as intensive services to put them on the path to self-sufficiency. Her journey is proof positive that with the right kind of help, young people even in the direst of circumstances can get their lives back on track. Her story also raises the question: how many other Carlas could we be helping that we are not? Unfortunately, there are far too few nonprofits like Second Story and far too many young women like Carla. 

Almost Home 

Middle-class kids and parents often take for granted the value of structure and stability in a child’s home life. In fact, middle-class parents of toddlers and young children often bemoan the tyranny of the schedule that rules their lives—naptimes that if missed lead to early-evening meltdowns; the daily march of snacks, meals, baths, and bedtimes; playdates and structured activities; and, over it all, the exhaustion of unending vigilance that comes with keeping a young child out of mischief. But parents also instinctively realize the benefit of routine in helping build a child’s sense of security and self-confidence. Routine is the invisible scaffolding that keeps a healthy household together. Kids in typical households don’t question whether they will have a place to sleep or if they will be fed. Rules about appropriate behavior not only help keep them safe (“Don’t play with matches!”) but also impart the importance of self-management. And as much as children test the boundaries of the rules parents set (along with their parents’ patience), these explorations are also intended in part to test how much a parent cares about their well-being. (“Is mom going to notice if I go play in traffic?”) 

The importance of this structure and stability becomes all the more apparent when it’s not there. For young women like Carla, for instance, their disconnection from school and work is a direct consequence of their underlying estrangement from their families. Organizations like Second Story fill the void—at least temporarily—and provide the support that connected young people take for granted in their homes but the highest-need young people don’t have or never had. In many instances, having that refuge can make the difference in whether a young person can arrest their slide into permanent disconnection and regain their footing. 

Often, this begins with something as basic as a place to stay. 

In the case of Second Story, the organization maintains an emergency shelter for homeless teens in a split-level house on a commercial street in Tysons Corner, Virginia, sandwiched between an apartment complex and an office park. Fairfax County, where Tysons Corner is located, just outside D.C., is among the most affluent counties in the country. In 2016, the median household income was an impressive $114,329, and the median home was worth $516,800.1 Even so, there’s plenty of diversity and significant pockets of poverty and homelessness—according to the county, more than 2,300 homeless children were enrolled in the Fairfax County public schools in 2017–18.

“People are always surprised there’s homelessness here,” says Judith Dittman, Second Story’s executive director. 

Moms like Carla live in one of three townhouses Second Story maintains for its transitional living program. One of these is in a complex in Fairfax, Virginia, and is home to two young moms and their children. There are three bus stops nearby and a Metro station within walking distance so the women have ready access to transportation. 

Carla's journey is proof positive that with the right kind of help, young people even in the direst of circumstances can get their lives back on track.

The townhouse is sparsely furnished but comfortable. On the main level is the living room with a desk and a computer, a playpen, and baby seats. Toward the back is a small kitchen and a dining room with a wooden kitchen table and four chairs. There’s a washer and dryer in the basement, and upstairs are two bathrooms, along with two small bedrooms and nurseries for the kids. All of the furniture has been donated or bought secondhand. None of it is stylish; all of it is serviceable. There are also plenty of strings attached—something that’s crucial to the theory behind the program. In exchange for a place to stay, program participants must work, go to school, and use the time they have to prepare for a life without the organization’s support. 

For instance, when clients move in, their first priority is learning how to maintain their new home and keep it clean. This task is a key component of the structure the program provides. By giving clients the responsibility of maintaining their living space, they learn self-efficacy, time management, and accountability. Conceptually, it’s no different from a parent’s demands that kids clean up their rooms. 

“The first thirty days are focused on learning about the house,” says Megan Huebner, director of Second Story’s residential services. “How do you operate the washer and dryer? What do you do if there’s water coming out of the shower and you can’t turn it off?”

Many of the young women, Huebner says, have never kept up their own place. The housing also comes with many other conditions— there are rules and rules and rules. Curfew is at 9 p.m. each night, and visitors are not allowed without permission. The staff comes in for “chore check” to make sure the place is clean, and there are random checks at odd hours to ensure that people are where they are supposed to be and people who aren’t supposed to be there are not.

“You have to call in by nine on the voicemail every night,” says Carla. “You say, ‘Carla calling in for curfew, then hang up.’” The first month is a probationary period, and if all goes well, you earn a weekend pass away. The young women also earn points for housekeeping, which they can turn in for pizza, gift cards, or a curfew extension. 

While the rules might sound draconian to some, they impose the structure and routine that many of these young people have never experienced before. “It made me really responsible for my- self,” says Carla. Even the curfews were helpful, she says, by keeping her away from the people in her life who were destructive, such as her abusive boyfriend. “What helped me was forcing me to be independent and isolated from people who gave me anxiety,” she shares. “It forced me to just focus on myself and my son.” 

The rules at Second Story also include mandatory attendance at therapy, weekly meetings with a case manager, and group sessions on Monday and Tuesday nights focused on basic life skills: parenting, budgeting, how to read a lease. The women learn about the right way to discipline their kids, how to introduce their babies to new foods, and milestones in development. They also learn about the “soft skills” they need to get and hold a job. “Once, this neuroscientist came and talked to us about emotional intelligence,” says Carla. “It was the first time I’d heard of it, and it was really eye-opening.” 

Over the course of just a couple years, Second Story essentially provided Carla with the lifetime of support that middle-class parents give to their children. In addition to learning the skills they need to run a household and be good moms, the women are required to spend at least thirty hours a week at work or in school or training. Each young woman works with her case manager on a “service plan”—a written plan with goals for their physical and mental health, parenting and life skills, and career and education. “My case manager, Angel, was amazing,” says Carla. “She worked around the clock.” 

In Carla’s case, Angel connected her with a local workforce program called Training Futures, which put her into an internship, where she worked in office administration from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day, learned Microsoft Word and other skills, and earned a certificate. That internship helped her land her first job, as a facilities assistant at a defense contracting agency in the area. “It was easier to find a job after I completed that program,” she says. It was there that she met the person who would help her get her current job at the defense contracting firm—a connection that she likely would never have made without the help of Second Story.

Copyright© 2020 by Anne Kim. This excerpt originally appeared in Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.