Mark Pence and Director of Development Melissa Kratzer

“I’ll never forget what I felt like after being homeless for two months – having nothing, washing up in Qdoba’s sink every day,” said Mark Pence. “Sleeping in a stairwell will make you feel like nothing.”

The 25-year-old is one of the more than 800 unaccompanied youth and young adults under the age of 24 who find themselves homeless every year in our community. Pence found help at the Coalition for the Homeless and is now a member of the agency’s Youth Action Board, comprised of young adults who have experienced homelessness firsthand.

According to the Coalition’s Director of Development Melissa Kratzer, the board is vital.  “They are integral to everything we’re doing here around youth homelessness. None of our plans move forward without their input, advisement and approval. They’re worth their weight in gold,” she said.

Board member Pence said his vision goes beyond raising money and awareness about youth homelessness. “From my perspective, we are trying to make Louisville into a sanctuary for homeless youth,” he said.

“A big part of our mission at the Coalition is about education,” notes Kratzer. “When most people think of homelessness, they don’t think about a face like Mark’s. They think of older adults sleeping in camps,” she said.  “But oftentimes, you’re not going to see them on the streets. Young people are savvy, resilient and resourceful so they’re often going to be couch surfing or doing whatever it takes to survive. Unfortunately, an astonishing 41 percent of local homeless youth have reported being a victim of sex trafficking. Homelessness looks different for young adults, and our collaborative work is built around addressing their unique needs.”

When you’re homeless

Couch surfing. Changing schools and addresses every few months. Being told you will grow up to be a criminal. Living in a Chevy Cavalier. Being bullied and taunted for wearing the same clothes to school. Having no place to keep your most prized possessions. Having your food or possessions stolen time and again. Trying to stay away from rampant drug activity and predators. Trading sex for a place to sleep. Being attacked or preyed on by older adults. Feeling unsafe constantly. All these are things Mark Pence or other homeless youth experienced daily on the streets.

“You find yourself on Fourth Street or wherever asking for a couple dollars already feeling less than human, and you ask another human for something that they’re going to say no to. You feel bad already for asking. You do feel like nothing, literally feel like nothing.”

Pence said it’s all about survival. “In the LGBT community, particularly, I’ll see women who find themselves in relationships with people they don’t want to be with or stuck in situations because they wanted somewhere to go. People pimp you out or force you to be on drugs or do things you don’t want to do. And you just wanted somewhere to live – that was it.”

Identifying the issues

The director cites a laundry list of reasons why youth and young adult homelessness (defined as 24 years and under) is on the rise. “We know a disproportionate number of homeless young adults have aged out of the foster system,” said Kratzer. “A disproportionate number are minorities – it’s the societal problem of discrimination and racial bias. Twenty-five percent of them are LGBTQ+, and might have been kicked out of home, or don’t feel safe there and are homeless for that reason. There is a squeeze, too where housing is expensive and wages are low. If you’re working minimum wage, you cannot survive. Then you stack those problems on top of transportation issues – where someone can afford to live is not close to where living-wage jobs are – and the bus system is inadequate.” It all adds up to complex struggles for youth who are homeless.

Focusing on solutions

Kratzer said the Coalition’s goal is to stem the burgeoning tide of youth homelessness by 2020. That’s not as elusive a goal as it may sound, thanks to the efforts of a formidable 70-partner alliance with other youth services and advocacy organizations, and a $3.5 million HUD grant recently awarded to the Coalition to support youth homeless initiatives for 2019 and 2020.

The agency jump-started their focus on youth with 2017’s 100-Day Challenge on Youth Homelessness. Louisville was chosen as one of five cities across the country to take part, setting its goal to house 100 youth in 100 days, which represented a 500 percent increase over the previous rate of housing that population.

Collaborating with 25 key youth partners like Louisville Free Public Library, Metro Police, JCPS, Home of the Innocents, YMCA Safe Place, Centerstone and others led to an effort that was “intentional, intense, creative and highly collaborative,” said Kratzer. “We accelerated our efforts and created a by-name list of homeless young adults and kept that updated. At the end of 100 days, we housed 115 young adults, and Mark was one of them. The youth that were housed may have gotten their own apartment or been united with family, or got reconnected with the foster system,” she said. Overall, since the challenge ended, the Coalition has reduced its list of homeless youth from 230 to 85 – a 60 percent decrease.

Another innovative program launched in February 2018 by the Coalition is the Host Homes Project, a program where families or individuals host a homeless young adult in their home for a short period of time. These volunteer hosts provide them with food and housing while the young adult works with a case manager on a permanent housing solution and other goals such as education or employment.

The program, which is being carried out by Home of the Innocents’ Aftercare division, has three families currently being trained for the Host Homes Project, and soon young people will be staying in their homes. Kratzer said more families are needed for this project. “It’s a big ask but it will change your life and will change the life of a young adult, so if you’re really committed to making a difference that’s what you can do,” she said.

“The difference it makes is that stability,” said Kratzer. “If you’re always trying to figure out where you’re going to keep your stuff and where to eat and where to lay your head, or stay safe or wash your clothes – you are not able to have the energy or capacity to figure out how to fill out an application for work or to enroll in school,” she said.  “My dream for the program is that the young adults will form meaningful relationships with their hosts that they carry with them after their short stay. What all of us need is people who care about us.”

Kratzer said it was the 100-Day Challenge, the launch of the Host Homes program and the Youth Action Board that helped tip the scales for the Coalition to be awarded a $3.5 million HUD grant for 2019 and 2020. “It’s a complete game-changer,” said Kratzer about the grant, which was awarded to only 11 communities around the country. One way the grant will be spent is for much-needed housing vouchers, said Kratzer. She explained some parts of the grant are renewable every year, which means the grant money will be on ongoing resource for this community. “I believe we’re going to end young adult homelessness by the end of 2020,” she said.

Caring makes the difference

“I don’t know how all of us are here today,” said Pence, after sharing some traumatic backstories with other youth board members. “But I know if not for these youth-based programs, we wouldn’t be here or sane, or clean and sober, or working on better things for a better future. I am thankful that Louisville is a community with so many caring adults,” he said.

After graduating high school and barber school, Pence now works at two barber shops, and attends business school at Spalding University. Pence said his dream is to be a venture capitalist and philanthropist. “What I got from these programs that I cherish more than getting help, more than getting my barber’s license, more than help with education, was just the help of being able to feel human and feel like somebody again,” said Pence. “What I’m trying to say is these places gave me a lot of hope.”