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Napping teens raise awareness of homeless youths

LANGLEY — Choochokam-goers may have noticed something a little out of the ordinary at the arts festival this year: An old leather couch on the side of Second Street, covered in blankets, sleeping bags, pillows, ragged stuffed toys, and snoozing teenagers.

But this image isn’t really out of the ordinary at all, and that was the point. Lori Cavender set up the in-your-face visual aid to help raise awareness of a largely out of sight, but very real, problem that torments teenage students all over the island: the lack of a stable home.

“The community needs to be aware of how many kids have been couch surfing and sleeping in their cars and sleeping in the woods, because it’s such a hidden problem,” Cavender said.

She first brought the couch out for the third and Fourth of July parades and will be setting it up at the Island County Fair in what she has affectionately dubbed “Summer Couch Hop 2011.”

Through her nonprofit organization, Ryan’s House, Cavender is working toward building the only shelter on Whidbey Island to house teens ages

13 through 17 when they have nowhere else to go. Cavender and the teens hope their couch-sitting nonstop from 8 a.m. Saturday until Sunday afternoon during Choochokam will help Ryan’s House gain the support it needs to finally be built.

Thanks to some generous community members, the shelter is well underway. The project has land — five donated acres on Mortland Drive in Clinton.

Cavender said the preliminary building plans are ready, the survey is done and the percolation test has been approved; now they’re just looking for a well digger that may be willing to donate services or offer a discount. Then they can go on to the next step of pouring the foundation.

The shelter will have 12 beds in the beginning, but it will be more than just a place to stay. Because teens 18 and older can’t legally stay in the same shelter as 13- to 17-year-olds, Ryan’s House will have a drop-in center for youths who need support but can’t sleep there. They’ll be able to shower, wash their clothes and get hot meals, toiletry kits and even tutoring help — “any support they need before they have to go back out on the streets again,” Cavender said.

Ryan’s House will bed kids on a first-come, first-served basis, but the staff will also help teens find alternative temporary or permanent housing.

Another part of the process will be helping mediate kids back into their original homes when it’s a fitting possibility.

Last year, 67 unaccompanied teens came to Cavender’s attention. This year there have been 85, and they’re all students.

With no shelter to house homeless children younger than 18 on all of Whidbey, these students face some tough choices such as trying to find friends to stay with on the island; relocating to a shelter in Everett or Mount Vernon and enter a new school mid-year; or moving to an off-island shelter while attempting a Whidbey commute to school every day.

Many end up dropping out, and that’s exactly what Cavender wants to avoid. She points to statistics showing that inconsistencies in children’s lives — whether they be in the form of a place to stay, meals or a school — interfere with the learning process.

“These students shouldn’t be hindered just because they’re living in an inadequate family situation. That isn’t their fault,” she said. “We want to circle them as a community, and help them get that education.”

One of the teens sleeping on the couch at Choochokam was Nicole Patterson, who just turned 18 and graduated from South Whidbey High School. She’s been couch surfing off and on for the past few years. Her mother is sick and unable to adequately care for her; her father is abusive.

“Sometimes it’s not safe to go home,” Patterson said. “It’s scary not knowing where you’re going to stay.”

Most of the homeless youth Cavender comes across are displaced due to family problems similar to those Patterson has experienced. Parental substance abuse leads by a long shot, but mental or physical abuse, mental illness on the part of the parent and the inability to support children financially are other big problems, Cavender said. Other teens are rejected by parents who don’t approve of their lifestyles, like when they come out as gay, bisexual or transgender.

“It’s really hard because you love them, but you can’t stay there,” Patterson said.

As festival-goers wandered by the couch display, many stopped to share their own stories.

While Cavender is touched by all the people who identify with the project, she’s also surprised this has been a problem on the island for so long without anything being done to fix it.

She’s been approached by people in their 80s, she said, who tell her stories of taking in youth when their kids were in school on the island. “And I’m like, really? Forty years this has been a problem and we’re just now getting to the fact that we need a shelter,” Cavender said.

While most people are incredibly supportive when they learn about the island’s homeless youth problem and the Ryan’s House project, Cavender said some seem to be misinformed or hold onto stereotypes that homeless youth must be “juvenile delinquents.”

“These are not the people that are going to break into your homes and hold you hostage,” she said. “We need to educate the community that these are kids trying to work themselves out of a bad situation, and they need our support as they do that.”

Cavender’s confident about the benefits of community support for these kids based on her own close experiences with them. One of the first teens she took in 10 years ago is now traveling as an au pair in Europe, and Cavender plans to go visit her in Ireland in a few months. Another one just got married, Cavender said with a lilt in her voice.

“It is really fun to see how these kids have changed and grown.”

When Patterson isn’t napping on the Ryan’s House couch as an awareness-raising prop, she attends Skagit Valley College, where she’s currently halfway through her associate’s degree in early childhood education.

Cavender was hesitant to use the cliché, “It takes a village to raise a child,” but insisted it is true.

“If everybody just pitched in one little piece we could get this up in no time flat.”

She said community members can help out by donating money, services or supplies, buying Ryan’s House fundraising bracelets or opening their homes to some of these kids in the meantime. And, of course: “Just talk about it.”

“We want to work ourselves out of a job,” Cavender said. “But because it is an issue and because it hasn’t been addressed, our community needs to surround this project and get this house built.”

For more information, visit www.ryanshouse.org, call 206-356-2404 or email ryanshouse@juno.com.

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