Program bridges gap to keep teens off streets

Blayne Whitt is one of 19 previously homeless students who graduated from high school this year with help from Homeless Youth Connection. He has plans to attend Glendale Community College in pursuit of a degree in Fire Science. [Submitted photo]
By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia

For kids living on the streets, surviving takes precedence over attending school.

Blayne Whitt, 17, was homeless about three years ago. He said scraping to find a place to sleep and living out of bags on a daily basis were barriers that kept him from attending or even registering for school. His stint with homelessness and drifting in and out of schools began in 2013, when his mom lost her job and fell into addiction.

“I didn’t notice going from having a nice house, where I felt safe, to sleeping on a torn up sofa in a hoarder’s house with no electricity trying to do homework by candle light, while people are fighting about drugs,” he said. “I didn’t realize that was not normal.”

But with the help of a host family and Homeless Youth Connection, he was able to graduate from Centennial High School in three years, and now he’s looking to take classes at Glendale Community College in pursuit of a Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Science and performing with an improv comedy troupe.

“It’s awesome that now I can piece together my life and pursue what I want,” he said.

About 18,000 children drop out of school each year at a lifetime cost to society of more than $7.6 billion, according to a 2014 study prepared for the Arizona Mayor’s Education Roundtable.

The overall homeless count in Maricopa County went down this year, but the number of homeless individuals and families living on the street went up by more than 400 people, according to the 2017 annual Maricopa Association of Government’s homeless Point-In-Time count.

In 2009, Homeless Youth Connection was created to draw attention to such facts, and since 2010, the nonprofit has served more than 900 youths ages 13 through 19, many in the West Valley.

During the 2016-2017 school year, HYC provided about 400 homeless youth with basic needs, case management, housing and other resources so they could stay in school.

This year, 44 unaccompanied homeless youth had a place to call home. Of the 44 students living with host families, 22 were seniors and 19 graduated, like Mr. Whitt, and the other three are going back to school, said HYC Executive Director Dawn Bogart.

Case managers help youth identify what they want to do after graduation and then help the students create a plan to accomplish that goal. Planning for the future is supported by host families and mentors, and helps youth avoid homelessness in the future.

Ms. Bogart said homeless students face a variety of barriers to education that can keep them from graduating and need more intensive case management to address their situations. HYC, a drug-free program, assists students in securing safe, stable housing. When students aren’t worrying about basic needs, they can thrive, graduate and succeed, she said.

One of the biggest barriers students encounter is transportation.

Mr. Whitt said school became a nice constant and something he could look forward to, but before living with his host family, attending was not reliable.

“I grew to love the people and the (school) community. There were lunches and friends and people I could talk to,” he said. “But then after school, sometimes I would wait hours and hours and never get picked up and then sometimes I would just walk around or go to a gas station and hope that someone, somehow would contact me.”

HYC works with about 50 schools in Arizona and a number of schools in the Peoria and Dysart unified school districts. During the 2015-16 school year, HYC served 19 students in the Dysart Unified School District and 91 students in the Peoria Unified School District. This school year they served 14 students in the Dysart district, and 89 in the Peoria district.

Zachery Fountain, a spokesman for Dysart Unified School District, said HYC works one-on-one with homeless or in-transition students to find housing and employment. They also provide life skill development services once a councilor or staff member identifies a student as needing additional assistance.

“We are grateful for their partnership as we work together to ensure students can have a stable housing situation that will allow for a positive learning environment,” Mr. Fountain said.

West Valley cities experience homelessness in varying degrees. The annual Maricopa Association of Governments Point-In-Time count, which took place on Jan. 23, 2017, indicated homelessness had gone up in Glendale and Surprise, but down in Peoria.

But Peoria Detective Lisa Scott said these numbers are not completely accurate due to the transitory nature of the homeless. When the homeless count takes place, there are not enough people available to contact every person who is homeless in the city so many people get missed, or some individuals contacted may be only in a certain city for a day or a few days where others may try to camp in the city longer.

Homelessness in Peoria went down from 31 in 2016 to 22 in 2017, according to the count, which Ms. Scott attributed to the city’s homeless outreach efforts that began February 2016 due to an increase in the homeless population and in citizen concerns. The Peoria Police Department created their outreach and education program to divert the homeless to needed services in hopes of solving the root of the problem, rather than simply arresting them.

Peoria has also worked with the West Side Crisis Intervention Coalition to provide Crisis Intervention Training to put more CIT officers on the streets to recognize mental health and substance abuse issues when dealing with the homeless.

“The CIT officers are then able to help provide individuals with resources and services to help them not only with being homeless but with the presenting issue that may have played a large role in what brought them to be homeless, such as mental health problems or substance abuse issues,” she said.

A major message that still needs to get out to the public, Ms. Scott added, is that if people want to help the homeless situation, they should give money to charities and shelters that directly help the homeless. Giving money directly to a homeless person rarely ever significantly effects them in a positive way, she said.

“From my experience thus far doing this work many have an addiction problem of some type and use a majority of the money they receive toward their addiction problem,” she said. “The very few with no addictions are using the money to get another need met such as food or water, which in return still does not help them because as long as they feel they are getting their basic needs met by panhandling they are less likely to take any of the resources and services (that are available).”


Homeless Youth Connection
This year, Homeless Youth Connection expanded throughout Maricopa County, working with more than 50 high schools in 12 districts, including Dysart and Peoria unified school districts. Deer Valley Unified District is expected to be added to that list this year.
For information about volunteering, contact Aimee Yamamori at or 623-374-3747. For information about donating, contact Dawn Bogart at 623-374-3747 or 602-565-3218 or See below the number of students in local districts served by HYC in the past three school years.
Source: HYC
PUSD: 73
DUSD: 34
PUSD: 91
DUSD: 19
PUSD: 89
DUSD: 14


Homelessness in the West Valley
Maricopa Association of Governments recently release its annual homeless Point-In-Time count, a snapshot of homelessness in this region. The count was conducted on Jan. 23, 2017, and found that 5,605 people experienced homelessness on that night, a 2 percent decrease from the previous year. Here is a breakdown of selected West Valley Cities.
Source: Maricopa Association of Governments
2015: 25
2016: 44
2017: 57
2015: 30
2016: 31
2017: 22
2015: 7
2016: 6
2017: 16


Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3696 or Continue the discussion at

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