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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 6:42 am | Fair 41º


Outreach Organizations Shine Light on Santa Barbara Homeless Youth with Candlelight Vigil

Event in De la Guerra Plaza aimed at highlighting supportive services within the community

A crowd of more than 50 supporters held a candlelight vigil to raise awareness about homeless and runaway youth on Thursday night in De la Guerra Plaza in Santa Barbara. Click to view larger
A crowd of more than 50 supporters held a candlelight vigil to raise awareness about homeless and runaway youth on Thursday night in De la Guerra Plaza in Santa Barbara. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Andrea Huerta moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 7 years old.

By the age of 14, she was placed into three foster care homes before she was connected with Noah’s Anchorage Youth Crisis Shelter in Santa Barbara.

“I moved (to the U.S.) for a better life, and unfortunately that’s not how it went,” the 18-year-old said this week. “I had a rough childhood growing up. Many youth run away from their home, and most of the time it’s not their fault.”

Huerta decided to leave her group home. 

“Thinking I could do it all on my own, I became homeless and lived on couches,” she said. "As much as I wanted to give up, I graduated from high school on time.”   

Throughout her journey, the organization offered assistance by providing temporary shelter, and helping Huerta get a job, prepare for college and obtain the necessities of life such as food, shampoo, laundry services and counseling programs.

To raise awareness about homeless and runaway youth, Youth and Family Services YMCA and local community outreach organizations held a candlelight vigil Thursday night in De la Guerra Plaza. 

The downtown Santa Barbara courtyard filled with more than 50 advocates.

Megan Rourke, Youth and Family Services YMCA executive director, addressed a crowd of more than 50 supporters during a candlelight vigil Thursday night in De la Guerra Plaza. Click to view larger
Megan Rourke, Youth and Family Services YMCA executive director, addressed a crowd of more than 50 supporters during a candlelight vigil Thursday night in De la Guerra Plaza. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

The third annual event was organized to help curb homelessness and runaway youth, as well as offer supportive services within the community, said Megan Rourke, the organization’s associate executive director.

Between 1.6 million and 2.8 million young Americans run away annually, according to a 2016 National Runaway Safeline statistic. 

In 2013, the National Runaway Safeline reported more than 10,000 calls received in California, with 134 of those from San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office received 815 reports in 2013, Rourke said.

The Santa Barbara Police Department received 289 calls for runaway and missing youth in 2014, Rourke said. 

The United Nations, for statistical purposes, defines “youth” as those persons under the age of 24.

“They are not bad people,” Rourke said. “They are good people that are dealing with challenging and bad situations. Look beyond the surface of the individual you are seeing.”

The majority of youth do not become homeless by choice, she said.

“It exists in every community,” said Rourke, whose worked with the organization for seven years. “Youth that run away or are homeless and sleeping on the streets did not choose that for fun.”

Every homeless community is different, Rourke said.

“With youth homelessness, it’s not abrupt and in your face,” Rourke said. “It’s behind the scenes. It can be easy to turn a blind eye because you don’t see youth sleeping in the park. They are most likely couch surfing or finding places to sleep that are not in open spaces.”

Lack of support and financial difficulties are two factors that contribute to youth homelessness, she said.

The issues young adults and children face are unique depending on the person’s trauma and life experiences, Rourke said.

She said survival tactics kick in once an individual is left without a home. 

"It makes you desperate," Rourke said. "Substance use, sex or trade is used as their survival tactics. Instincts come out when you don’t know where to sleep at night."

Approximately 80 percent of homeless youth ages 12 to 21 use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate with the "traumatic experience" and abuse, said Youth and Family Services YMCA board member Dave Morley.

Outreach representatives addressed the audience with stories of homeless and runaway youth who suffered from abandonment, drug and alcohol abuse, depression and street-life culture.

Morley shared a story about a 21-year-old man who was addicted to heroin after traveling to Asia.

En route back to his hometown, Ricky found himself stranded in Los Angeles and hitchhiked to Santa Barbara.

Morley did not say the man’s last name.

Ricky was unable to hold a job and continued to drink alcohol regularly.

He received food, clothing and hygiene items after meeting an outreach worker on State Street.

Ricky was assaulted while sleeping outside one night and broke his jaw.

Noah’s Anchorage Youth Crisis Shelter helped with medical support and assisted Ricky with the connection of returning to Oklahoma, where he had housing and a job.

One trend representatives the Youth and Family Services YMCA program have noticed is that the Santa Barbara community has less homeless youth in the summer months.

“People may be moving further north and come back to Southern California in the winter area because of weather,” Rourke said. “It’s challenging to identify a consistent trend because episodes of homelessness and runaways can occur for many reasons. It’s hard to pin trends.”

Once dusk fell, the crowd dressed in shades of green paid tribute to youth who died on the streets.

Event organizers held a moment of silence for Youth and Family Services YMCA clients Angel Flores, Daniella Hearn and Benjamin Rubio, who all died August in a high-speed car accident on the Mesa in Santa Barbara.

Youth and Family Services YMCA serves more than 600 children and young adults annually through Noah’s Anchorage Youth Crisis Shelter, the St. George Family Teen Center, My Home at Artisan Court as well as through outreach and support programs. 

The event included representatives from the Channel Islands YMCA, Montecito Family YMCA, CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), the Santa Barbara County Education Office, Our County Our Kids, Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, the Mental Wellness Center, New Beginnings Counseling Center and the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services at Santa Barbara City College.

The vigil coincided with National Runaway Prevention Month, which is in November and began in 2002 after President George W. Bush hosted the White House Conference on Exploited and Runaway Children.

Rourke said progress has moved forward on a local and national level.

The Family & Youth Service Bureau partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education in a collaboration to end youth homelessness in 2020.

FYSB also funds the Street Outreach Program under the Reconnecting Homeless Youth Act of 2008.

The U.S. Department of Education released provisions to the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program in 2016 by addressing the needs of homeless individuals, and ensuring protections and educational rights for homeless youth and children.

On Tuesday, Mayor Helene Schneider proclaimed November as National Runaway Prevention Month for the city of Santa Barbara.

Rourke urged the community to learn more and provide assistance to homeless, runaway and at-risk youth living on the streets.

“It’s the simple things, like offering a helping hand or smiling at someone,” Rourke said. “We are all human and in this together. For change to happen, we need to have that at our core.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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