Not all homeless youth sleep on city benches or in tents. In fact, advocates say most unhoused kids in Lane County “couch surf” from place to place. And that makes them hard to identify and help.
In the final part of our series, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert introduces us to a Eugene teen who became parentless and homeless before caring adults stepped in to help.
“Ready? Ok! (Claps)
“Willamette! Woverines! We show no fear. We’re stronger together and that’s why we’re here!”
Kelly Flannigan is a 2nd year member of the Cheer Team at Willamette High School in west Eugene. She’s in her senior year with a ready smile and a solid grade point average. From age 15 to 17, Kelly experienced homelessness.
“Um. A lot of my friends are very supportive,” Kelly says. “And when I was bouncing around from house to house. They would always say like, ‘my house is open. You can come sleep on my couch.”
It’s 6 pm when cheer practice ends and it’s been 10 hours since Kelly caught a city bus to get to school. Dinner is a fast food sandwich wrap. After that, she shares her story.
“In 2015 my dad suddenly passed away,” Kelly tells us. “There was some abuse going on with my little sister. And my grandma ended up finding out and my grandma then contacted the Eugene Police Department and DHS (Department of Human Services.) We pretty much told them what life at home was like and what had happened.”
Kelly and her younger sister were removed from the house that night. A police officer and a representative from Child Protective Services went back to get the kids some clothes.
“And um, my dad had then got his gun and went to the backyard and committed suicide. The next morning, I was put in the custody of my biological mother full time.”
The transition was difficult. Kelly and her mom had been estranged for a long time and the reason why soon became apparent.
“After about a year and a half with my mom, she ended up using mine and my sister’s Social Security money to buy drugs and alcohol. So the bills weren’t being paid,” Kelly says. “So me and my little sister felt that it was not a safe place to live anymore and we found elsewhere to stay.”
Kelly says this is when the “couch surfing” started. First they stayed with a neighbor. Then that family moved to Roseburg. Her little sister went with them but Kelly wanted to stay in Eugene for school.
“So my mom placed me with another neighbor,” Kelly says “and I ended up living there and some stuff happened and it wasn’t a place feasible for me to stay at anymore.”
Kelly’s mom had already relocated out of town and her father was dead. With no legal guardian to live with, the 17 year old became part of a specific population of homeless in Lane County known as “Unaccompanied Youth.”
“A lot of people don’t know a lot about it--what it’s like to be homeless,” Kelly says. “And to be an unaccompanied minor and not be able to focus on school or do an extra-curricular because you’re always worried about where you’re going to sleep at night or how are you ‘gonna get to school or what you’re going to wear. Like will you have clean clothes to wear.”
Reporter: “You’ve felt all these things?”
“I have. Yes,” Kelly says.
The traumatic incidents of Kelly’s young life caused upheaval. But she was not left alone. A safety net was quietly cast around Kelly. Counselors and administrators at her school were made aware of her case. Donna Butera, the Homeless Student Liaison for Bethel School District, advocated for Kelly and helped her find a place to call her own.
“I currently live in the girls Youth House out in South Eugene,” Kelly says.
The former church turned youth home is operated by Saint Vincent De Paul, Stained glass windows glow with a warm light, inside and out. There is a large common room, laundry and a central kitchen. Staff are here 24/7. Andrea Aviles is a youth specialist.
“I kinda wanted to be a teacher but someone approached me asking me to work here,” Aviles says “and it kind of fell into my hands and I’ve fallen in love with working with the girls and being here at the house.”
Aviles and other staff members implement program policies and make sure the house is always a safe place.
Reporter: “So, where is your room?”
Kelly: “It’s downstairs.”
“We each have our own little key card that we just scan at the door and it lets us in,” says Kelly. “All of our rooms have our own like individual keys that we have.”
(sound of key card and door)
“So there’s my desk and my bed and my wardrobe,” Kelly points out. “Uh, my bathroom and my little sink area over here. All the rooms come refurbished already and decorated.
“Each room comes with a little quilt and it has, like, little sayings on it. And I think some of them come with a plushy little bear.”
Reporter: “Did you get one?”
Reporter: “What did it feel like?”
“I don’t know—people care,” Kelly says.
Despite the challenges of her life or perhaps *because of them—Kelly pushes herself to succeed. She was recently named Student of the Month at Willamette High School. She plans for a career in Early Childhood Development and is already enrolled at Lane Community College.
Every time Kelly walks into the front door of the youth home, she sees a colorful image on the wall.
“There was a lady that came in and painted this beautiful mural for us over the summer. Like, there’s two people and there is kinda like a space in the back of them. Kinda like open mindedness almost.”
Reporter: “And what bird would you say that is?”
“I don’t know, maybe like a Phoenix or something?”
It does indeed look like the mythological bird that rises from the ashes of its former existence. Restored. And ready for a new life.
For more information on organizations and agencies working to end youth homelessness: