Making a Home for Displaced Youth

Encore: January 09, 2013

The president of Covenant House, Kevin Ryan, talks about homeless youth and how to help in our MetroFocus solutions story. MetroFocus airs January 9 at 7:30 p.m. on WLIW21, January 10 at 8 p.m. on NJTV, and January 10 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Every night, approximately 48,000 people spend their nights in a shelter in New York City.  No one knows exactly how many of them are children. One organization, Covenant House, is working to break the cycle of homelessness for young people by providing shelter, healthcare, skills training and education outreach.  Covenant House began in New York in the 1970s. Today, there are Covenant Houses in more than 20 cities across the United States, Canada and Central America.

The president of Covenant House, Kevin Ryan, and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Tina Kelley have co-authored “Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope.” The book tells the stories of six homeless youths grappling with issues ranging from drug addiction to harassment to sex trafficking.

Read an excerpt from the book below.

A Son Walks Alone
Paulie’s Story

Soon after Paulie was born, the fates seemed to have it in for him, pulling him from loved ones, beating him up, tearing his families apart, sending him demon after demon to wrestle. When we think of him as a newborn, we imagine softer landings for him. But our respect for Paulie, the teenager, the young man, the champion kickboxer, the cook who shares his skills, is boundless.

Thirteen-year-old Paulie Robbins sat up in bed, jolted awake by the shaking ground and the bouncing coins on his nightstand. It was yet another tremor in Palmer, Alaska, this one magnitude 4.0, enough to wake him at nearly one thirty one morning in December 1997. He rubbed his face groggily. In disorienting moments like this, he wished his father were home to be the man of the house. But Hank, a crab fisherman, was out on the Bering Sea, leaving Paulie’s mother, Tiffany, alone with Paulie and his nine-year-old sister, Casey, in their trailer.

Hank’s weeks away from them were a mixed blessing. He could be boisterous and lively, bringing the kids to garage sales in search of discarded treasures. He filled the shed he had build adjacent to the family’s trailer with bargain tools and used them to repair toasters, bicycles, lamps, door hinges, anything that needed fixing. In the summertime, Hank took the kids camping and fishing, trolling for salmon on the Kenai River. An experienced angler, he taught them how to catch rainbow trout in Skilak Lake, baiting their gang hooks with worms as they faced the glacier at the head of the basin. Indoors, though, Hank was another man entirely. His angry, violent outbursts regularly left Tiffany or the kids crumpled in tears.

Paulie still flinched recalling an afternoon many years earlier, when during a disagreement between parents that escalated into a brawl, Tiffany fell to the carpet with a bloody nose, and Paulie, just six, rose to defend her. But his father pinned him against the wall in front of the dining cabinet, his hand around his son’s throat. Then, suddenly, he dropped Paulie and left the room, returning moments later with a gun. Paulie thought, “Oh my God, he is going to kill me.” But Hank did not point the gun at Paulie, nor at Tiffany. Instead he put the barrel in his own mouth and forced Paulie to put his small finger on the trigger.

“It’s time for you to make the decision what you’re going to do for the rest of your life,” Hank hollered into Paulie’s face. The boy cried, silently. Tiffany, who had wet herself from anxiety, vomited. I should do something, she thought, but she was frozen. Eventually, Hank scoffed at Paulie for refusing to shoot, then left the trailer in a rage.

The violence accelerated, and Tiffany descended into depression as their seventeen-year marriage wore on. A sour melancholy, beyond what’s common during the long, dark Alaskan winters, often paralyzed her. She slept away hours of the day, escaping via a mixture of antidepressants and pain medication prescribed for recurring back problems. Her frizzy reddish-brown hair splayed across her face as she dozed in the dark wood-paneled living room, sometimes leaving a dangling lit cigarette for Paulie or Casey to douse.

Paulie stood up and glanced at Casey asleep in the top bunk. He shadowboxed a bit near his sister’s head, thinking about how his father would cheer from the stands during his Pop Warner football games. He sometimes felt more exhilaration from that sound than from the victory on the football field. Paulie cherished that fleeting feeling, the thrill of seeing his father beam with pride, video camera in hand, his whole family together and happy.

Yet the last football season had ended badly for Paulie, and he was eager to prove himself again to his father. He had steamed through a fantastic fall, throwing dozens of touchdowns. His Bruins were undefeated, 8-0, coming into the playoffs against the rival Wolverines.

The Bruins went ahead early in the game, but the score tightened as the clock ticked down, and with just minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Paulie could not find an open receiver downfield. He took matters into his own hands and ran out of the pocket for the end zone. He peeled past the defensive line, and with only a free safety to beat, he raced to the goal line. The defender dove at Paulie’s heals, tripping him up a few yards shy of the end zone, and Paulie, thrown off balance, leaped with the ball to try to score. But his arm hit the turf hard and bent fully backward, pulverized. Paulie held onto the ball, short of the touchdown. The crowd rose, hushed, as his coach and mother raced onto the field. Sobbing and unable to talk, he limped to the sidelines, passing his father, who repeatedly asked what was wrong.

Tiffany brushed Hank away and led Paulie to a chair. He hunched over in severe pain, oblivious to his surroundings until he felt a sudden jerk as Hank’s hand reached down and pulled his injured arm.

“Quit your bawling,” he said, cursing. “Tell me what happened or I’m taking your whiny little ass home!”

Paulie walked to the car behind his family, his head bowed, his arm in excruciating pain. Casey was already in the backseat, and Tiffany was in the front passenger seat, nursing a new welt on her eye. Paulie asked what happened and she insisted it was nothing, that she had tripped and fallen. They rode in silence to the hospital, where X-rays showed Paulie had fractured his humerus bone. The doctor reset it and applied a cast that ended Paulie’s football season and the family’s outings for the year. Hank’s video recorder went into storage. The Bruins buckled a few weeks later in the championship game, with their star quarterback sitting on the sidelines.

Paulie was devastated, and Tiffany tried in the immediate aftermath to boost his spirits and remind him that the setback was temporary. Paulie still remembers with a grin how she looked him in the eyes each morning and encouraged him, “You are going to grow up and be something special, Paulie. You’re not like everybody else. You’ve been given a gift.” For her part, Tiffany hoped those words would inoculate him against the loss of his football season and other rough punches to come.

That early morning after the shaking of the ground woke him, he faked one more hit in Casey’s direction and climbed back in bed, ready to sleep again. At least Mom’s still here, he thought as he drifted off to sleep…

Text provided courtesy of Covenant House, Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.


MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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