OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WDAM) - A certain group of youth are more susceptible to homelessness, addiction and human trafficking. They are 18 to 21 years old, and most of them “age out” of the foster care system, often without a person to pick them up and put them on the path to a successful life.
These youth face challenges, but one south Mississippi organization works to bridge the gap.
“There were eight police cars. They took us away. We didn’t know where we were going,” said Shellie Carter, Development Director of BREAKTHROUGH! in Ocean Springs.
Carter is not alone. In 2015, there were over 4,700 Mississippi children living in “out of home” care, according to the Child Welfare League of America. Foster care is a taboo topic that many Mississippians live through.
“That was one of the most traumatic things in my childhood that is in my memory that won’t go away,” Carter said.
Possibly even more traumatic is the point in life when those youth can no longer lean on the Department of Child Protective Services to put them in a warm bed.
“They get out there. They graduate," Carter said. "Then what’s next?”
“There was a 300 percent increase of homeless youth on the Gulf Coast,” Carter said. “It showed us there was some sort of gap in services for the homeless youth.”
That’s when things came around full circle for Carter. She is now a case manager in the new program “BREAKTHROUGH!”
She works with one of few nonprofits offering services to bridge the gap from foster care to independent living for transitional age youth. It’s a Community Care Network program.
“When they come to us, they don’t have anything but the clothes on their back,” said Carter.
Child Trends Data Bank reports in 2015 there were 1,062 youth at the transitional age. Eighty-one of them aged out of the system lacking much of the love and financial support their peers have.
“We have taken children who are broken in a thousand puzzle pieces, and we are trying to help them get the puzzle put back together,” Carter said.
BREAKTHROUGH! uses two HUD grants and assistance from community partners to provide housing, furniture, help with bills and helpful tools for youth in school, or at least looking for employment.
They need more help.
‘We have to turn people away, because we don’t have funding,” Carter said.
Across the south, the amount of money state and local government spent to support transition age youth in 2014 varied.
Texas spent $2,636,620. Louisiana spent over $14 million. Alabama spent $736,754, and Mississippi bottomed out the list with just over $720,000.
Despite financial barriers, Carter said she is determined to make a difference with Breakthrough.
She described her most fulfilling moments working with transitional age youth.
“In the end when they receive a GED, they feel accomplished,” Carter said.
“If you have a map for these kids for the next year or two to give them direction, we’re hoping to alleviate them from becoming homeless,” Carter said.
It’s a map the state of Mississippi continues to work on. Carter said she sees herself in the youth BREAKTHROUGH! strives to serve.
“I pray that just because I can relate to them it comes across that I’ve been in your shoes. I’m not going to give up on you," Carter said. “I don’t want you to give up on you.”
BREAKTHROUGH! is based in Ocean Springs but offers assistance to youth across the state. For more information on the organization and how to donate to further the efforts of Community Care Network’s BREAKTHROUGH! Youth Program, visit CCNMS.org.
According to Child Trends data bank, our state’s youth aging out of foster care are in most need of academic, post-secondary education and mentoring.