On one of the coldest nights last week, a Payson teenager was thrown out of their home. With nowhere to go, they slept in their vehicle.
Another teen went homeless when police arrested their father.
And every night, another teen sleeps in an apartment with three other families unable to afford rent on their own.
These are just some of the stories of homeless Payson High School students.
Last year, the Payson Unified School District (PUSD) reported having 363 homeless students in the district, an increase of 189 students since 2007.
This school year, the district estimates having 400-plus students without a permanent home.
In many cases, the teen’s parent cannot afford to provide a home. In other cases, teens are neglected and rejected as “throwaways.”
“Whatever the reason, these young people don’t have a regular home, so they surf from one place to another. Yet many of these kids desire to stay in school and graduate,” according to a PADS brochure.
With the number of homeless students growing every year, PUSD officials asked community faith leaders in November 2009 to find temporary housing solutions so students could finish high school.
Payson Assisting Displaced Students (PADS) was formed and for the last year, organizers have worked tirelessly to iron out a program that would match stable families with students while they complete their education.
With most of the kinks worked out and funding secured, PADS coordinator Richard Richey, also the pastor at Payson First Church of the Nazarene, said they are accepting applications for host families.
Host families will house students temporarily or long-term, depending on the situation. Either way, PADS covers the cost of the students’ living expenses so hosts only have to provide a safe home and loving support.
“It is one thing to be homeless another to be uncared for,” said PADS treasurer Roger Kreimeyer.
All of the students in the PADS program are alcohol and drug free with no major disciplinary problems. The majority are 17 and 18 years old and not under CPS placement.
Many of the students are in a gray area where they are not adults, but also not under CPS protection. Alone and with no way to afford a home and go to school, many of these students leave Payson for the Valley where shelters are available. However, many fail to finish school as a result.
Blanche Oakland, PADS PUSD representative, said the government calls these children “throwaways.”
Last November, four students left Payson for Valley shelters after losing their home.
Since PADS was not yet fully organized, Oakland said she had no choice but to tell the students to leave the area since the Payson area has no shelters.
PADS organizers say many homeless students are victims of their circumstances and parents who either abuse drugs or alcohol or cannot support them.
“It is a difficult, hard name to label them (throwaways),” Oakland said. “That is why our community is trying to resolve some of these issues.”
“We want people to know there are no throwaways in Payson,” Richey said.
Oakland believes with the economic downturn of the past few years, more parents cannot sustain a household, which is why more students are homeless.
What defines homelessness varies. It can mean living in the forest, living with grandparents or friends or living with more than one family under one roof. Oakland said she has seen as many as four families living in one apartment.
However they end up homeless, many students find with deteriorating living circumstances, they can no longer focus on school.
“These kids need to be kids and not worrying about where am I going to sleep tonight,” Oakland said. “It is tragic to see them cry.”
By simply providing a home, hosts give students the opportunity to finish school and start a life with options, Kreimeyer said.
“This really is a giving of themselves of their house and heart to help a student in need,” Richey said. “We are trying to keep them in school so they can succeed.”
PADS organizers have established a 38-page policies and procedures booklet that covers everything from where a student will sleep with a host family to their curfew.
“We came up with a program that is safe for the host and the students,” Kreimeyer said.
When a perspective host family signs up, PADS volunteers will interview the family and provide a program orientation. From there, volunteers will need to get a background check and a fingerprint clearance card.
If approved, a host will go through a training program with Penni Stonebrink, a certified foster parent. When a student needs a home, the host and student will meet and if it is a good match, the student will stay with the host for a trial period. If that goes well, the student will stay with the family for an agreed upon time or until the student graduates.
Hosts are in no way legally adopting the students. Host families receive no government funds, but PADS covers all student expenses, including food, clothing and extracurricular school fees. Through several large donors, PADS, a 501(c) 3 nonprofit, has enough money to start and run the program for some time, Kreimeyer said.
“We don’t want this to be a burden (for host families),” he said. “We are talking about good kids who just want to finish school.”
For more information on the program, contact Richey at (928) 595-0704, Kreimeyer at (928) 468-1365 or Oakland at (928) 978-1479.
To donate, send funds to PADS, P.O. Box 3476, Payson, AZ 85547.