When you think of a homeless person, you might not think of a young person.
But the fact is, children and teens are homeless; some of them are even alone on the streets.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that Clark County had the third highest number of unaccompanied homeless youth, after Los Angeles and San Jose.
And Nevada had the highest rate of unsheltered youth, period.
“Essentially, we have a homeless youth epidemic right here in our own backyard,” Arash Ghafoori, executive director for Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth told KNPR’s State of Nevada.
And the reasons for increasing numbers are complex, he said.
Some of the same things that cause homelessness in other places, cause it here as well like the breakdown of families, overburdened government agencies and socio-economic pressures.
However, Las Vegas has its own unique issues that can make it more difficult, Ghafoori said.
He pointed to the city’s sex trafficking problem as an example. Kids who are on the street do not know how to access resources and will shift into survival mode.
There are people in the city looking for vulnerable people to exploit. Kids without a home or without someone looking after them – or both – can end up selling their bodies for food.
Ghafoori said on top of that problem the city’s sexualized nature may give the impression that it is acceptable to do that.
For many homeless kids, the only refuge is their school. They can get a sense of stability, free food and some schools offer clothing.
For Giuseppe Pizano, school was the only place he could think to go after he went home one day and found that his mother had left.
‘I came home and everything and everyone was kind of just gone,” he said.
Pizano was only 14 years old when he was abandoned by his mother and to make matters worse he had only lived in Las Vegas six months.
Not sure what to do, he decided going back to his school and sleeping on the bleachers of the football field was his best option.
“I ended up going up there and not really knowing what to expect,” he said, “Woke up the next morning, went to school, had breakfast because I was part of the breakfast and lunch program, and just kept going to class,”
Pizano slept at the bleachers for six months. During that time, he had to steal food on weekends and fell in with a group of kids who didn’t help the situation.
He recalls the time one of his friends offered him $10 to steal a skateboard. He knew it wasn’t something he didn’t want to do but he needed the money.
Pizano recalls punching a kid in the face and taking his skateboard.
Eventually, when it was time to sign up for his sophomore year of school, he needed a parent or legal guardian to sign the forms and he had to confess that he didn’t have one.
That’s when a school counselor took him in and found him a place at the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth.
Pizano said without NPHY he wouldn’t be where he is today. The organization gave him a place to sleep. They helped him get through school and helped him get equipment he needed to run track in high school.
Ghafoori said that Pizano’s story is unfortunately very common. To find those kids, NPHY goes to schools, parks, along with the Strip, Boulder Highway and Fremont Street.
Many homeless kids don’t trust adults or institutions, so the group brings the services to them to build trust with the hope that they’ll eventually come into the shelter.
While the reasons for homelessness are complex, the solutions are also complex. The Southern Nevada Youth Homelessness Summit aims to find some of those solutions.
The first summit started last year. Ghafoori said the summit is comprised of 45 different agencies, including his group, the juvenile justice system and family services.
For the past year, they’ve “Put together a plan that focuses on what we can do in our community to really move the needle on youth homelessness,” Ghafoori said.
He said one of the key parts of the plan is to foster collaboration between agencies and nonprofits serving kids in need.
“We’re realizing that not one system, not one sector, not one provider can solve this problem,” he said.
Beside just presenting a plan, Ghafoori said the summit will focus on action plans for five main areas of focus to actually work towards ending youth homelessness.
“We need to find youth like Giuseppe long before they have to spend six months on a bleacher,” he said, “We need more prevention. We need more diversion services. And we need services that actually work for youth rather than just be retrofitted from the adult system.”
As for Pizano, he lost all contact with his biological family. He said after being abandoned it was easy to detach, plus, he found another family.
“Once I became part of Nevada Partnership of Homeless Youth, they became my family,” he said.
He did finish high school and went to college.
Ghafoori believes Southern Nevada needs to have such a great support system in place that children will never be unsheltered or unaccompanied.
“My ultimate hope is that we create a system that is so rich and so robust that no youth has to turn to the streets if they don’t want to because they’re experiencing homelessness,” he said.
Arash Ghafoori, executive director, Nevada Partnership Homeless Youth; Giuseppe Pizano, formerly homeless youth
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