This story is from Young, Unhoused and Unseen, a podcast production from WHYY News and Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting.
Editor’s note: This story includes topics of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
Mikaya, 17, is a teen with an aspiration. She wants to pursue a nursing degree at Temple University.
“In a perfect world, I will be giving back to the people who really need help,” she said.
Mikaya lives with her grandparents and is considered to be one of the 4,675 local students who experienced some type of homelessness in the last year, according to the Philadelphia School District. But that is just half of what HopePHL estimates.
According to their latest tally, 8,383 children, infants through 21, did not have housing stability in 2022. Many of these youth end up in the foster care system and are caught in a vicious cycle, where they will always struggle to have a stable home, experts say.
One in four youth will become unhoused within four years after aging out of foster care, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Kids who get bounced around in the system get caught in the revolving door of foster care that impedes child development and puts them at a higher risk of adult homelessness.
The National Foster Youth Institute says the constant shuffling between homes has a severe impact on foster children.
“The children and youth who remain longest in foster care, or whose last placement was in a group setting, are the least likely to ever become part of a permanent family. This lack of support leads to a greater likelihood of arrest, homelessness, unemployment, and early parenthood,” the report stated.
The catalyst for youth homelessness is often family violence,” according to the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health.
Mikaya’s experience with homelessness was rooted in escape. As a child, she experienced sexual violence. She was raised in Section 8 housing in Southwest Philadelphia, one of the areas with the highest poverty rates, according to a Drexel University report. Mikaya’s mom fled domestic violence and moved from house to house, taking Mikaya with her, she said.
“Growing up, I really never had stability,” she said. “My mom was never around.”
Mikaya never knew of a permanent home. She ran away multiple times and was 12 when she was placed in the foster care system. She said she struggled to feel at home in many of the Philadelphia-area youth social services centers and shelters.
Mikaya, 17, has plans to become a nurse. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
“Some foster care housing really don’t care about you. I experienced it myself,” she added.
Eventually, she found a support group at Youth Empowerment for Advancement Hangout (YEAH) Philly, a therapist she sees twice weekly, and a mentor.
“I still have some childhood trauma, but I’m healing,” she said, adding, “One thing I will say to the young ladies who’s out there that’s been sexually abused, speak up. Don’t wait too late.”
Amber Goltz is the manager of anti-human trafficking at WOAR Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence. She said victims such as Mikaya seek a way out — by running away and staying with friends. More often than not, however, these youth remain vulnerable and become unhoused.
“The way that they’re reacting to trauma is out of their control. It’s the body’s response [to] something that happened to them,” she explained.
In Mikaya’s case, after several unsuccessful home placements, she wound up in “kinship care.” Her grandparents took custody of her and her brother.
Family is typically the first placement option, according to guidance by the Philadelphia Department of Health and Human Services.
If kinship is not an option, youth are placed in temporary housing arrangements. Unlike Mikaya, there are thousands of young teens for whom kinship care is not an option.