A couch surfer and house hopper from age 12, David Torres knows what it’s like to live without security or stability. Because of his constant moves, he attended almost a dozen middle and high schools throughout Texas and Los Angeles, never earning a diploma. Now 19, he finally has a place to call home.
Torres’ apartment– at 1203 Pleasant Ave. — is one of seven permanent supportive housing units opened by the nonprofit Jóvenes, Inc. in Boyle Heights last summer. Each furnished unit at the Progress Place Apartments has two bedrooms.
Operating permanent housing is a new direction for Jóvenes, which helps about 120 homeless youth and young adults a year in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles with emergency shelter, transitional housing and counseling programs.
Homelessness among young people is a serious, yet often overlooked, problem. One reason is that homeless youth may not look like what people expect when they think of people living on the streets.
“Homelessness is defined as individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate night-time residence,” Jóvenes’ development director Eric Hubbard says.
People who are sharing others’ housing or living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing or bus or train stations are considered homeless.
The L.A. Unified School District reported that more than 16,000 students were homeless or transient in the 2011-12 school year, the latest year for which statistics are available. Many go to school in Boyle Heights.
Hollenbeck Middle School has the district’s second highest number of homeless students: more than 120. Theodore Roosevelt High School ranks third with 117. Garfield High School in neighboring East L.A. has the highest number: 179.
Jóvenes’ permanent housing is for youth between 18 and 26. One reason for the high number of homeless in this age group is that foster care generally ends at 18, and many former foster children have no place to go when state support ends.
Hubbard says similar programs exist in downtown’s Skid Row, but this is the first permanent supportive housing serving East L.A. and Boyle Heights. The hope is that with support, residents will not become chronically homeless, which is defined by living more than three years without a home.
The Progress Place Apartments, Hubbard says, provide a “long-term place to call home, and not just 90 days to turn everything around.”
Ninety days is the maximum stay in Jóvenes’ emergency shelter, where youth receive case management and employment counseling. After that, youth who are employed or attending school can move into dormitory-like transitional housing, where they learn daily living skills and perform chores like washing dishes and cooking meals.
Classes and counselors help residents establish goals and gain independence. Residents must follow rules such as no drug use and an 8:30 p.m. curfew, except on special occasions. Most young people stay in the transitional housing for about 18 months.
Hubbard says Jóvenes staff understand that second chances are sometimes necessary.
“It’s not like a one strike and you’re out type of thing,” he explains. “It’s a let’s really try and help you move over the line.”
Kevin, 18, who asked that his last name not be used, is a typical resident. He had been on his own and on the streets — or in jail — since he was 8. He lived with friends for a while, but didnt like it.
“I felt uncomfortable over there ’cause they would pay (for) everything and give me everything,” he said.
He applied for an apartment at Progress Place and was accepted five months later. Now, he can walk out onto his balcony, see the sunrise and sunset, and decorate his yellow-colored walls.
He proudly says, “This is my place.”
Kevin is studying for the General Educational Development test and hopes to get his life back on track.
Jóvenes hopes the new permanent housing will help end housing instability for its 14 young residents.
Residents of Progress Place Apartments pay 30 percent of their income for rent. The L.A. County Department of Mental Health pays the rest. The base rent for the apartment is $250 monthly. Any amount over $250 that a youth pays is put into a savings account that is given to him when he moves out.
Residents must work or attend school, meet with a counselor and take classes on how to manage their money and prepare for their future.
Jóvenes serves only males in most of its programs, but females can live in Progress Place. The first young woman moved in this summer.
Jóvenes also offers employment and education preparation, family preservation services and domestic violence workshops. In the employment and education preparation program, guidance counselors help youth obtain jobs and write résumés and provide transportation to and from interviews. Youth can also get help planning their futures, finding vocational training and obtaining tutoring for the GED test.
Some of the young residents have contributed to the program design. Torres and some other homeless adults and teens started Jóvenes’ Homeless Education and Advocacy Project. This project reaches out to middle and high school students to raise awareness and provide resources to homeless youth.
“When I was in middle school and high school, I was pretty much homeless, and the schools didn’t really know much, and the students didn’t know either,” Torres says.
Jóvenes wants to expand its housing opportunities. Mi Casa is an expansion project that would enable the organization to double its beds and house up to 80 youth in renovated houses in Boyle Heights and East LA.
Torres says he hopes to one day open a shelter for youths under 18 because there are few housing options for minors.
“A lot of them think being homeless is the end of the world,” he says, but he encourages them to “keep on fighting.”
Veronica Alaniz is a Boyle Heights Beat youth reporter and a senior at Ãnimo Ã“scar De La Hoya Charter High School.