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Homelessness in the Ozarks: Alone as a Teen

Rare Breed Youth Services

Last October—in the middle of the month—19-year-old Carolynne Booth found herself alone and with nowhere to go.  Her journey into homelessness began when her father kicked her out of his house…

"Because he said I wasn't meeting his expectations of a daughter.  And I told him, I said, 'I'm sorry.  I'm not perfect.  Maybe you should meet my expectations of a father.'  I haven't known him since I was four.  That was the last time I seen him.  I never knew him, I never grew up with a dad.  So I told him, I said, 'I don't need you.  I can do it on my own--watch me,' and I have.  I've come a long way," Booth said.

Before she left the house, she asked her father to tell her where she could find help, but he refused to give her any guidance.  Instead, he told her she could sleep in a park.  And that’s what she did—she headed to Nichols Park on the north side of town…

"I was getting really, really tired.  I was getting cold, and I had my clothes with me.  I didn't have any blankets with me or anything, so I bundled up with some clothes, and I fell asleep under the bench.  I had one bag on one arm and my other bag on my other arm, securing it and everything and using one of them as a pillow, and an officer was shining a light in my eyes and tapping me, and it took me forever to wake up," she said.

Booth was so tired that she didn’t immediately wake up—the officer told her he thought she was dead.  And he told her she wasn’t supposed to be in the park at that hour…

"And he asked me what was wrong and why am I out here, and I told him, and he got mad because my father--what he said to me, so he called Safe to Sleep, and they said they'd make a bed for me, so they did, and I went there, stayed the night.  The next morning I had got up and I went to the Kitchen, the administrative office, went there, and I talked to One Door," Booth said.

She slept overnight at an area church through the program Safe to Sleep for a few days, and then she got lucky—Rare Breed Youth Services placed Booth in an apartment in the organization’s Transitional Living Program where she says she’s really, really happy.

She lived with her mom and an abusive stepdad until she was ten—that’s when she and her siblings were taken away from their home and placed in foster care. 

She was 13 when the family who was fostering her decided to adopt her.

At her request, they helped her find her biological mother and father, and at age 18 she left home to live with a biological aunt and uncle.  But she was having a hard time adjusting to life in a rural area, so she moved to the city to live with her aunt’s mom.  She stayed there for a while, but things weren’t good…

"The lady--she's schizophrenic, and she was throwing things at me, hitting me, yelling at me and stuff like that and I didn't like it so I told her that if she hits me again I'm going to leave and she's like, 'no you're not, you're just going to leave now because I can hit you if I want.  You live in my house, I'll do what I want,' so I said, 'alright, alright,' so I got my stuff," she said.

She went to her bank to withdraw money from her account only to find much of it missing.  She took what she had left and bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Kansas where her mom lived (her stepdad had passed away in 2010).  She stayed about a month, but the situation was bad there, too…

"She said that she had a job, she had a car, she had her own place.  Well, all of that was lies.  My mom is still a drug addict, and she's not abusive to me, and I love my mom even though she did what she did when I was younger to me, but it's ok.  I forgive her, but I'll never forget what she did.  I told my mom that I would never leave her because I just got back in her life, but I did because I didn't feel safe.  I had nowhere to go.  I had nothing. I barely had any food," she said.

Her dad found her through Facebook and asked her to live with him in Springfield.  But that ended with Booth getting kicked out and sleeping in a park.

She’s thriving in the Transitional Living Program where she shares a three bedroom apartment with two roommates who have become her good friends.  She likes to cook for them.

And she’s enrolled in OTC’s Middle College Program.  She’s currently completing a paid nursing internship, and recently got hired on part-time at Elfindale as a Certified Nursing Assistant (she just passed her certification test a couple of weeks ago).

Loni Brewer, coordinator of Rare Breed Youth Services, says Booth’s story isn’t typical as far as how quickly she got into TLP.  But she says she was the ideal candidate for help…

"You know, as you listen to Carolynne's story you can hear all of these adults who had very disfunctional connections with her or cut off those connections with her or abused her in so many ways, and that's so typical of the youth that we serve and so, when they come to use, usually around the age of 17, we do those needs assessments--do they need counseling?  Many of them do.  Over 50% have experienced trauma," she said.

According to Brewer, the youth who are served by Rare Breed get a hand up not a handout.  They learn life skills to help them find their way in the world.  And they can get their GED through OTC.

Booth’s past still haunts her.  Her mom’s getting ready to go to prison and will have to give up the baby she’s carrying.  Booth is sad that she barely knows many of her siblings (her mom has six kids).

Her mom’s parents live in Lakeway, but she says she can’t count on them.  Her dad’s parents are dealing with cancer and dementia.  But she considers the staff at Rare Breed Youth Services her family and her roommates, she says, are like sisters.

She hangs out at Rare Breed when she’s not working or going to school, and she takes classes offered to homeless and at-risk youth—classes such as dealing with trauma and on respect and anger management.  Sometimes someone will teach the kids about woodcarving and other things.

And she goes for counseling once a week.

If it weren’t for Rare Breed, Booth says, there’s no telling what might have happened to her…

"Someone would have probably come by and have killed me or raped me.  I was scared, and I told myself that if I don't find any help I'm gonna end up dying.  And that's what I say to other people--if you didn't have this place, where would you be?" she said.

Loni Brewer says this is the second interview in which she’s heard a teen say they believe they might be dead without help from Rare Breed.  She gets emotional when she hears kids talk about the impact her organization has on young people…

"You know, we feel like everyday we're teaching these kids how to, like, cook a meal for themselves or just teaching them self esteem and that you are worth more 'cause so many of our kids have been victims of trafficking and things like that and, you know, just to hear them say that--we don't realize, you know, the impact that they feel that we have on them everyday because it's a sum of all the parts," Brewer said.

Brewer couldn’t be happier with the progress Carolynne Booth has made.  She ran into a student on the MO State Campus recently who was completing a double major—that student once received help at Rare Breed.  And Brewer says she can see Booth being as successful.

"She's so smart, and she's so talented, and she could do anything she puts her mind to, and, like she said, she's going to counseling every Thursday.  She's doing things that we've not even required her to do just because she knows that that's what she wants to do to become a better person," she said.

Booth still keeps in touch with her dad, her stepmom and her half brothers and sisters and plans to see them soon.

She loves to cook and knows how important it is to try to eat healthy foods to prevent health problems that run in her family.  She gets up early each day to catch the bus for work--she’s got a good head on her shoulders.

And she has hopes that her future will be much better than her past…

For my future I hope one day that I get married with somebody that cares and accepts me for who I am and they treat me the way I would want to be treated in a relationship and knowing that I could always come home to my husband or my fiance or my boyfriend or whoever it is, knowing that I could come home to them, you know, and tell them my story about work or something, just, you know, being there with them and stuff at night and waking up to them and having kids one day and having a good home," she said.

According to Loni Brewer, most kids run away from home to escape things like abuse and neglect—not because they don’t like the rules, and she says more resources need to be put towards helping homeless youth…

"I know I don't want to see kids on the street and I can't imagine anyone else wanting to see these kids on the street, but we as a community are gonna have to come together and start--you know, it takes a village to raise a child and we as a community are gonna have to come together to do something for not just these youth but our young youth.  The average age of first-time homelessness in Springfield without a parent is 15-years-old," she said.

To find out more about Rare Breed Youth Services, follow the link on this story on our website.

For KSMU and the Sense of Community Series, I’m Michele Skalicky.