Camden lacks transitional housing for homeless youth. Here’s what is being done about it

This story is from Young, Unhoused and Unseen, a podcast production from WHYY News and Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting.

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The Department of Housing and Urban Development does not consider young people who couch surf to be homeless. The four categories included in the agency’s homelessness definition do not include when a young person goes from house to house for a place to sleep at night.

“While couch-surfing is not specifically referenced in any of these portions of the definition, it is possible that youth who are couch-surfing may qualify under one of [the] categories — most commonly under [Imminent Risk of Homelessness] or [Fleeing Domestic Violence,]” the agency said in an email.

HUD provides a guide to help communities determine when a youth qualifies as homeless under their definition. But HUD’s definition doesn’t make sense to Rosy Arroyo, administrator of Camden County’s Youth Services Commission.

For her, couch surfing is not only a form  of homelessness — it’s also a safety issue.

“Some young people can’t be in certain areas and it becomes unsafe,” she said. “They then become homeless because they’re trying to navigate other ways around being in that situation, which ultimately still leaves them in sticky situations.”

Arroyo and her colleagues operate under the McKinney-Vento definition of homeless, which is a broader determinant compared with HUD’s definition.

Young people in Camden County lack access to transitional housing. The waiting list for an adolescent housing hub is “extensive,” and can last from six months to two years, according to Arroyo.

Among the organizations the county partners with is the Center for Family Services and the Camden Center for Youth Development, which is taking the lead on a restorative and transformative justice hub.

They also work with Covenant House New Jersey, which has transitional housing an hour away by car in Atlantic City.

Covenant House New Jersey in Atlantic City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘Our main focus ultimately… is to house youth’

Covenant House operates emergency and transitional housing in Atlantic City. The organization did have a drop-in center in Camden from 2012 to 2019. But not having any type of shelter made it difficult to operate there.

“We had every aspect as far as case planning goes where we were helping in different aspects,” said Kenneth Greer, associate director of housing for Covenant House New Jersey, who managed the Camden drop-in center from 2017 until it closed. “But our ultimate goal of Covenant House is to house youth.”

A typical apartment for young adults at Covenant House in Atlantic City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Another challenge for the organization was assisting youth with jobs and transportation.

“Ultimately a lot of the jobs were in Cherry Hill or Pennsauken or the surrounding areas,” Greer added. “It was quite difficult for youth to figure out how to work and figure out where they were going to sleep at.”

Covenant House continues to receive referrals for youth who are in need of shelter, but it’s a challenge to convince them to leave a tough situation in Camden and regroup in Atlantic City.

“It’s always a challenge to try to uproot someone from what they know and with people they may know and connections that they may know to move to a place that is foreign to them,” Greer said.

  • December 26, 2023
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