Davonta Sellers was taken out of his family’s care at 2 years old. And now at age 22, he’s still working to find stability.
He, like many other Milwaukee youths, spent his entire adolescence in and out of foster care and group homes before eventually facing homelessness as a teen and into adulthood.
“I was with my first foster mother until I was 5 years old, and then she didn’t want me anymore because of my behavior,” he said. “From then, I was always moving in with family members, into a new foster care or a new group home.”
For Sellers, there was never a stable home to go back to so bouncing around was his only option. That lack of stability is one reason many Milwaukee youths end up homeless adults.
According to the National Foster Youth Institute, after reaching the age of 18, 20% of the children who were in foster care will become instantly homeless.
Sellers entered adulthood struggling to find stable housing and was homeless for a while but said with the help of Pathfinders in Milwaukee, he’s been able to find a job at a local entertainment venue and is beginning to find stability. Pathfinders serves youth with housing struggles.
“The last time I counted, I’ve been in around 57 group homes,” Sellers said. “When those weren’t working out, I slept on bus stops, in parks, tents, my friends’ basements, even the rescue mission.”
"People never tried to understand"
“As I learn and grow, I still struggle to forgive my past because it shouldn’t have gone like that,” Sellers said. “I know I’ve suffered from some of my behavior, but I was just so angry, and people never tried to understand.”
He said he’s still working on his temper as he deals with his past.
“My only memories of my mom are trauma. My dad was in and out of prison, and my grandmother’s home was an abusive environment,” he said. “So, when I wasn’t getting taken away, I was leaving on my own.”
According to Audra O’Connell, the executive director of Walker’s Point Youth and Family Center, this is not an uncommon experience for youths who are in the system. She said around 40% of the youths her group serve are those who are stable for a while and then aren’t because they don’t have a placement, left their placement or were kicked out.
“People often confuse trauma with bad behavior. They confuse the two because they have no understanding of youths,” Deshanda Clark, the senior vice president of programs and services at Pathfinders, said. “People don’t listen to young people, and when they do advocate for themselves, it’s seen as disrespect.”
O’Connell said her organization is seeing an increasing number of youths who have mental health needs.
“Since the pandemic, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation are through the roof,” O’Connell said. “Youth were forced to stay in situations that may not have been good for them as a result of COVID.”
She said because so many services decreased during the pandemic, the center saw more youths who needed a lifeline such as runways and domestic violence survivors.
“We also believe we are just starting to see the fallout from the loss and tragedy of the pandemic in our work. Families who come to us have greater challenges,” the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families said in an email. "They are dealing with more complex and traumatic situations. That is also true of our youth. We are working hard on focusing on improving our care of older youth in particular.”
Undercounting is a constant issue for those serving people without homes, and this isn’t any different for young people.
According to Megan O’Halloran, who sits on the Milwaukee Public Schools board, there were 4,041 students enrolled in MPS’ Homeless Education Program this school year. The program offers services to families and students experiencing homelessness.
Of those, there were 816 unaccompanied youth, which means they lived separately from a parent or guardian. But these numbers are not representative of families and teens who fail to report being homeless.
“MPS can’t count students who aren’t going to school,” said Clark. “There is no clear depiction of the problem.”
And once a young person becomes homeless, Clark said, they are subject to suffering from bigger systemic issues.
“So many of our preconceived notions about young people like the way we see them in a negative light are connected to their instability,” she said. “When they come to us, they already feel hopeless so when we don’t serve them properly, they feel worse, and they can pull back.”
Clark said another barrier for youths is adults struggling to take accountability for what they’ve done.
“As an adult, you may feel like children should just listen and follow directions,” she said. “However, we have a generation of children who are exposed to everything that is adult-like because everyone is doing the same trends and weighing in on the same conversations and struggling with the same issue.”
She said it’s difficult to have any form of hierarchy when no one has provided young people protection from things that shouldn’t be present.
“They are exposed to everything, and many of them are leading what some call ‘adult lives,’” she said. “Some are parents already. They are working jobs and paying bills. Some youths were just at an MPS board meeting fighting for a shorter school week so they could work.”
She said it is hard to prioritize the needs of young people when you are struggling yourself, but we need to talk about how adults’ inability to prioritize youth isn’t the youth’s fault.
"Youth homelessness is the gateway"
According to Clark, sometimes struggles are generational.
“Some youths and young people we are case managing today are the children of people we’ve case managed in the past,” she said. “And some of these are coming here for emergency services with young children of their own. Youth homelessness is the gateway.”
“Everyone wants to help the cute little kid, right, but you have to realize that you’re to help the family because that kid that you’re caring for, that’s like the key to the family,” said Christina Chronister Thomas, who has been fostering youths for almost three years. “At that point when they’re staying with you, and their parents are working their plan, you need to offer as much support to the parents as you are to the children.”
Chronister Thomas said the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families does a good job of training foster parents but that same training for youths in the system is lacking.
She fosters infants and has built a close community with other foster parents.
Although there is a lot of information on how children in foster care should be treated, that is not always the case when youths age out of the system.
Sellers said on top of all his other problems, once he was ready to move into a place on his own, he couldn’t find housing.
“Because I’m so young and I didn’t have any support, it was so hard to get someone to rent to me,” he said. “And it was hard to make enough money to afford bills.”
Clark said Pathfinders advocates and builds relationships for the young people the group serves.
“It’s a lot of creating relationships with property owners because no one wants to go into a lease with a minor,” she said. “And there aren’t enough spots to house everyone through existing programs.”
According to Clark, creating space for young people to thrive is the first step toward breaking the link between youth and adult homelessness.
“We need to commit to affordable housing,” she said. “Then we need to allow young people into space where they can help determine what they need.”
Sellers said what helped him most were genuine people who wanted to see him succeed.
“I don’t know if people understand that so many of us were born into this lifestyle. We’re out of our homes because of the mistakes or choices of our parents,” he said. “You’ll never understand what we go through until you’re homeless. It’s a struggle every day.”