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Scouting the streets

Stand Up For Kids searches for youth in the shadows

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools earlier this month counted 2,493 homeless students on its enrollment sheets. That doesn't mean all, or even most, of those students are living on the street -- many are children whose families are living with other family members, have doubled up in low-income apartments, or are staying at shelters. Nor does that number include teenagers who have dropped out of school. At best, the count is an imprecise barometer of how many children are in need.

Small wonder, then, that volunteers hoping to start a Charlotte chapter of a national advocacy organization found ample need for a group to help homeless, runaway and otherwise at-risk children. Debi Abercrombie, 43, a former banker who's worked with youth advocacy groups in Pennsylvania, Alabama and her native New York, was one of the volunteers who originally surveyed what was available for at-risk kids. Now co-executive director of the Charlotte chapter, Abercrombie got involved with Stand Up for Kids after reading a 2006 Creative Loafing article about efforts to start a local group modeled after the organization a career Navy man, Rick Koca, started in 1990.

Charlotte's Stand Up For Kids is now recruiting volunteers and supplies, working with other advocates on a resource center for children aging out of foster care, and looking to work with CMS on reducing the number of runaways. Abercrombie talked with CL about the organization in the following interview, edited for clarity and length.

CL: What did you find in your survey?

Abercrombie: I think, in a nutshell, we found what Rick Koca [founder of Stand Up For Kids] found all across the United States, which is that there are a lot of well-intentioned organizations, church groups, ministries, other charitable organization, government organizations that would get together with the best intentions to help at-risk youth, homeless kids, runaways, but a lot of times ... the individuals were well-intentioned with what they think these kids need and not what the kids actually need. And two, a lot of these organizations help homeless children when they're attached to a homeless parent. For instance, like The Relatives. It's a fantastic organization. Kids can stay there for two weeks, but there has to be some effort at some point to get them back with their parents or back into school. There are a lot of different organizations where there are strings attached. We are a no-strings-attached nonprofit. Our main goal is to find these kids, to meet with these kids, to build a relationship over time so that they want to tell you what they need -- they want to go back to school, they want to go back to their foster family.

What are you doing now?

Outreach, which is the most important aspect of our program. We can only do so much with the resources we have. We probably have a distribution list of 150 people [interested in the organization}. Having said that, we probably have 20-30 [volunteers] that regularly show up for meetings, went through training, keep in constant contact. We're also recruiting a director of volunteers, a director of outreach and a director of fund development. That's what I started out as.

Sometimes homelessness, for kids anyway, has nothing to do with poverty: They come out to their parents and they get kicked out ... it could be a gay and lesbian issue, it could be an abuse issue, it could be an addiction problem in the family. Stand Up For Kids has a program, the Don't Run Away program. Instead of teaching kids who are 15, 16 years old not to run away ... [volunteers] address third graders through eighth grade on what your options are if this should happen or that should happen.

A lot of kids who run away from home because they're being beaten don't realize that ... they have a choice and that there are adults who will go to bat for them in court, that they have a shelter they can go to or that they don't have to live on the street. The Don't Run Away program makes those resources available.

We've done a lot of scouting. The idea is to try to find where kids are. Kids are on the move more so than adults. Adults ... don't stray very far. Kids are very different. They know that when it comes to homeless or runaway [children] that the cops, the Department of Social Services are going to go where the homeless hang out.

Where do you scout?

There are some neighborhood that I've done police ride-alongs. Up around Wilkinson [Boulevard]. It's hard to do outreach up there. The police advise us not to be walking around, that we risk getting shot. That whole area up around Double Oaks [a housing development off Statesville Avenue]. I did a police ride-along on the [North] Tryon District. They said if you're going to come out here, walk around with three people; if you're not with the police you risk getting hurt. It's hard to get volunteers to do that. Our route is, let's say, around downtown and in a fairly well-lit area: Salvation Army, in and around Tryon, Urban Ministry Center, that area on Wednesday night.

What kind of personality traits make a good volunteer [to do outreach]?

It's very difficult to work with kids who are addicted to crack or who are very angry and you're trying to help them when it doesn't seem like they really want the help. To keep coming back and be a constant influence in their life. To say what you mean and mean what you say. And build that trust over time so that you can maybe get them off the street. You have to like kids, and you have to be consistent. There are a lot of things Stand Up For Kids needs volunteers for. Somebody might just have a few hours a month or can only help a few months out of the year. Outreach is a different type of volunteer opportunity. Because you have to say, OK, I want to be a familiar face in this kid's life every Tuesday at 7 o'clock or such-and-such a time ... Food is your initial contact, but the end game is to be able to say, look, if you need anything, I will be here at 7 o'clock next Tuesday and I will be back again the following Tuesday and again and again and again so that you are a constant in these kids' lives.

If you see them and say that you're here to help, and you're not back to help, it's another disappointment. It's another letdown. If they're out on the street, they've had enough letdowns.

Every city is different. [Charlotte is not] like L.A. where you go down certain streets and you step over kids.

But I will tell you, when we were trying to put together a forum in April, I had contacted a restaurant to do some catering for us on North Tryon. And the person said, 'Oh I'm familiar with Stand Up For Kids from living in New York. I didn't know there were any homeless kids [here]. And they're four block away from where you can go stand underneath the 277 overpass [and] there's kids' sneakers and backpacks. Four blocks away.

The kids that are just roaming the streets are hard to find. But that again goes back to awareness and consistency. You can't find kids if you're not consistently on the street.

When did you start doing outreach?

We tried to start up an outreach after September when Rick was here. And it's kind of been on and off. It's going to be more consistent, without fail. If I have to do it [by] myself.

Did you have any previous experience with working with teens or homelessness before you got involved?

I'm familiar with being out on the street and drug addiction enough, with what these kids go through. How about that?

It's very difficult to work with kids night after night after night, with some that are junkies, some that have been sexually abused, some who are hanging on a thread. You can't take them home. You've got to do what you can while you have them in your sights. There are kids over the years that I've worked with day in, day out, with some of the different volunteer organizations I've worked with in New York and Pennsylvania and Mobile, Ala. It's heartbreaking when you think one day they're turning around, and the next day they're in the paper. When it's kids, it's hard to pick up and say, "OK, that one slipped through the cracks. But we have a thousand others." To be able to redirect your focus is very difficult.

How do you do that?

I know that there are many more kids. Any time wasted worrying about rethinking my steps, what could I have said, what should I have done, did I miss a sign, is time taken away from another one that you can save, or help, or however you want to put it.

For more information on Stand Up For Kids, visit standupforkids.org or e-mail debia@standupforkids.org. The group's next orientation meeting is July 24.

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