Portland Greenhouse Helps Homeless Kids

By Debbie Coppenger – 

When I came to the Salvation Army Greenhouse in Portland, Ore., as the new administrator last November, I really felt that there was no better calling for me, and that I have spent most of my life preparing to be here. I also believed that with my background in child mental health, state government, juvenile justice work, and as a seasoned foster parent, I was well prepared for my role at Greenhouse. In this short period of time, I now have learned that no amount of education, training, or experience can prepare you for the stark reality of what is happening in our community for homeless youth.

I also wanted to believe that it was the choices of the teens that caused them to be unavailable to the system. I know now that although this is sometimes true, most of the time it is not. We have a few kids who admit they were difficult and angry teenagers who caused lots of trouble–but when I talk to them, I see they are so aware of every shortcoming they have, and imagine some they don’t have.

Instead of the rebellious teenagers I expected, I see children who are desperately seeking some form of normalcy in a lifestyle that cannot possibly offer them anything normal. I have seen a girl who was locked out of her house at the age of 13–the day after her mother remarried. And I spent time talking to a young lady who ran away from home due to abuse that was so horrid we would not want to admit her abuser was even a member of the human race. There was a boy whose foster mother could no longer care for him, and the agency sent him to Greenhouse for services.

The truly scary fact is that in this city there are over 2,500 homeless teenagers. This is especially alarming when we consider that many are swept away in the survival mentality of the streets.

We aren’t saving all the homeless kids, and we are not the only ones making a difference. But the Greenhouse is helping as many youth as we possibly can. We have our success stories–kids who get help filling out college applications, and prepare for GED tests. There are kids in their 20s who say that Greenhouse literally saved their lives. Some, though, don’t make it at all. They die of drug overdoses or AIDS or suicide. As near as I can figure, we have been able to transition approximately a third of the kids we have served into productive lives. That means around 350 teens a year. Another third did not die out on the street because their basic physical needs were met, and someone here cared for them when no one else did.

Thanks to the help of the community, we can continue to offer this important service for kids. We hope to do more.

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