Homelessness is a pressing social issue confronting communities around the country and across Oregon. In Lane County, officials acknowledge a growing number of the homeless population are youth.
In part one of our series, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert shares the story of a young man who was homeless after he was kicked out of his house as a teen-- and the advocate who helped him get off the streets.
Tauna Nelson is easy to spot in a crowd. She sports a shock of platinum blonde hair with a shaved side. The 33-year old is small in stature but her presence on the streets of Eugene is big. Nelson helps homeless kids connect with social services, get off drugs, find a place to live. Nelson is Youth Action Council Facilitator for a community partnership called the 15th Night project.
“If a youth spends more than 14 days on the street—so if they hit that 15th Night- they’re likelihood of becoming chronically homeless goes up significantly,” she says. “So our mission is to step in and intervene.”
15th Night started in Eugene in 2015. Numerous stakeholders, from City Administrator John Ruiz to business owners, non-profit advocacy groups to homeless kids themselves –all come to the table to find solutions.
Nelson says youth consistently say “it’s got to start in the schools.” They need support dealing with the leading causes of youth homelessness—like trauma or displacement. And they need it *before things fall apart.
“They wish someone would have caught it when they were in middle school or even earlier,” she says.
In addition to meetings like this one in Eugene’s downtown library, Nelson’s advocacy work also involves going into schools and helping them start their own Youth Action Councils to prevent homelessness.
“You can imagine the things that can happen to a kid in one night—let alone 2 weeks. It’s terrifying. I’ve watched the transition happen,” Nelson says. “I’ve had kids at Hamlin Middle School that were my students. I saw them become homeless and then watched those two weeks like set into their bones and the shift happen in their eyes. I’ve literally watched the street set in.”
“Um, Hi. I’m Jacob Abbatello. I ended up homeless shortly after my 17th birthday.”
Jacob was kicked out of his house in Springfield.
“My mom was with this guy and he wanted me to go to their church,” Jacob explains. “And I told them ‘ok, I’ll go to another church but not this one.’ And he said ‘well either you go to this church or you gotta go.’ And I told him ‘no’ so he took and dropped me off at Station 7.”
That’s is a 24-hour emergency shelter for runaway and homeless youth in Eugene. Jacob stayed for three weeks.
“After I left Station 7, I was outside for a year at least-- that I slept outside,” says Jacob. “I didn’t have a place inside to sleep.”
Jacob says high school and homelessness don’t mix. He ended up dropping out and became addicted to methamphetamines.
“I kept using and I kept using and I kept using. And I just hated my life,” Jacob says. “I’d given up on everything.”
Living on the streets, Jacob had gotten to know Tauna Nelson. He says she regularly tried to connect him with help.
“Tauna had offered to take me out to this camp the year prior—out in eastern Oregon,” Jacob says. “It’s a Young Life camp. Tauna’s trying to get me out there. And I’m like, ‘no it’s not gonna happen. I’m not going out to church camp’ (laugh.)”
Nelsen thought the experience might help Jacob. He finally agreed to go.
“So I’m coming down off of drugs at this church camp,” Jacob admits. “I’m 50 miles out of any town in the middle of nowhere. Like I’m not getting any drugs—it’s not gonna happen. And I feel like crap…”
He says the pastor at the church camp told him to find a place away from everybody else, sit for 15 minutes and try to have a conversation with God.
“And I was like, ‘if you’re real—like, show me something.’ You know that casual thing where people try to force God into a corner and be like ‘you gotta prove you’re real to me.’ But,” Jacob says, “something just washed over me and suddenly I started to think in a different way about my addiction.”
In the two and a half years he was on the streets of Eugene, Jacob dropped out of high school, got addicted to meth and fathered a child he could not raise. He recognizes the irony of being kicked out of his house for not going to a specific church only to develop his own relationship with God while homeless and addicted. Jacob says those 15 minutes in the Eastern Oregon high desert changed him.
“I said Well, I’m not gonna be homeless again,” Jacob says. “So let’s figure this out, today. Took me three days to get into an apartment. NEDCO had paid the deposit and everything—helped me move in. I got into a place and I’ve been there since then.”
Today, Jacob has a steady job with a local contractor. He sometimes sees his toddler son, who lives with maternal grandparents. And he is an active part of the 15th Night Youth Action Council. Jacob applies his own experience when advising on priorities for ending youth homelessness.
“Brain storm ideas and try and get the community involved,” Jacob says, “to where we don’t have to see young kids sleeping out on the sidewalk.”
Youth advocate Tauna Nelson says young people like Jacob offer wisdom beyond their years. She adds the only way we’ll see real change is if everyone takes a stand.
“If the entire community says, ‘these aren’t Joe’s kids down the street. These are our kids,’” Nelson says.
The 15th Night project is open to any individual or group interested in working toward the shared mission to end and prevent youth homelessness.
For more information about agencies and organizations helping to keep youth safe on off the streets: