One day last November a mother dropped off her 13-year-old adopted son at Daybreak emergency shelter and told the staff, “Take him. I’m done with him.”
It’s a moment Daybreak CEO Linda Kramer will never forget — not because it’s so atypical, but because it’s so symbolic of what she sees every day, in record-breaking numbers. The 16-bed emergency shelter is currently overcrowded with 18 residents, some of them sleeping on couches. Fifteen clients are on a waiting list for the independent living program that provides off-site apartments with agency supervision. “I have been at Daybreak for 12 years now, and I’ve never seen it like this,” Kramer said, noting a 102 percent increase in the number of clients 18 and older since 2007.
What happens when a parent tells a kid, “I’m done with you”?
In our community, for 35 years, the answer has been Daybreak, the only homeless shelter for youth in the region and one of only 10 in the state.
Each year, the agency sees more than 500 kids like the girl who used a butter knife and a library card to break into vacant houses, living for weeks on dry cereal. Most are from Montgomery County, but some have come from as far away as Colorado.
“They have either run away from abusive homes or have been thrown away by the very people who are supposed to love them the most.” Kramer said in a recent speech. “They are girls like Stacy, whose father told her she had to leave because she cost too much. Boys like Derek, a 16-year-old secretly living alone in his mother’s Dayton home after his mother was arrested and jailed for violating her parole by bouncing a check at a grocery store. Or Steven, who at 15 began sleeping in a store restroom after watching to see when the cleaning crew finished its rounds at night.”
The first-name only references aren’t coincidental; Daybreak is fiercely protective of its clients’ privacy. But for the past year the agency has granted a rare look behind the scenes of its 50,000-square-foot new facility, which opened in 2007.
It’s a self-contained village, with its own coffeehouse, camaraderie and squabbles, even its own token economy in which kids earn “Daybreak dollars” by attending classes and doctor’s appointments and mastering basic living skills. It’s a place where some kids spend days and others years.
Adrian McLemore is a certified Daybreak Success Story, an articulate, poised young man who can be counted on to give a moving speech at fundraisers, such as this Saturday’s “Twilight on the Greene” gala dinner.
When he was referred to the program at age 14, however, nobody would have picked him as the boy most likely to succeed. “I was a troubled, angry young man,” he recalled. “When I first entered Daybreak, I was a loudmouth and the talk of the program with all these yelling outbursts.”
Yet outreach intervention specialist Robert Neal Jr. saw something in the boy. He became McLemore’s mentor and taught him the art of staying calm. “You’ve had a tough life, Adrian, but anger isn’t going to get you where you need to go,” Neal told him.
Today, at 24, McLemore is a junior at Wright State University, majoring in political science and contemplating a run for Dayton mayor in 2014 — not to mention bigger aspirations. “Obama beat me to the job of first African-American president, but I want to be the 50th president in 2032,” he said.
For now he has an agenda less political but no less important. He has assumed temporary custody of his sister’s 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. “I know what it’s like to be neglected — and not to be wanted as a child,” he said. “I didn’t want them to repeat the cycle.”
For Daybreak kids, success comes in many different packages.
For 18-year Jackie Renee Robinson, it meant getting prenatal care when she was pregnant last year. “I’m tired of couch-shopping,” she explained when she entered the program.
Her daughter, Paris, was born at Miami Valley Hospital on Aug. 5, 2009. Intervention specialist Tena Mitchell was the only person at her side at the delivery — an immeasurable comfort to the young woman who gave birth to her first baby, a boy she gave up for adoption, at 13. “Neither Tena or I got cranky with each other,” Robinson bragged.
But not everything has gone as planned for Robinson. She had hoped to be on the fast track to graduate from Life Skills, an alternative Dayton high school that targets at-risk youth, but dropped out because of the unexpected demands of raising a newborn.
She didn’t finish her Daybreak program, either, and has since moved in with a family member in Columbus. “It wasn’t the original plan,” Kramer said, “but she was able to stabilize herself enough that another family member said, ‘You can live with me, let’s make this work.’ That’s a different kind of success.”
Sometimes, success is elusive, as it proved to be with 19-year-old Antwuan McCoy. A stark black-and-white photo by Dayton Daily News photographer Larry Price appeared in People magazine in February. The article, which spotlighted homeless teens around the country, prompted Sinclair Community College officials to award McCoy a scholarship, but he never attended classes.
Kramer acknowledged the disappointment when Daybreak kids don’t take full advantage of such opportunities. But, she said, “they’re just like our kids; they don’t always follow the track we set for them. They’re still kids with horrific childhoods, yet we expect things out of them we don’t expect of our own children. They turn 18 and we expect them to make all the right decisions.”
Some of the outcomes are predictable. Daybreak enforces strict rules and guidelines while dealing with a population that isn’t used to such structure. They’re required to observe curfews and to attend school or seek employment while in the program. The “Daybreak dollars,” earned by complying with the rules, can be used to purchase a TV or an iPod or to save money for an apartment.
Demand for the facility has soared. Just Friday, Daybreak staff had to turn away two teens because there was no room for them. All they could give them were bus tokens.
Since 2007, Daybreak has had a 118 percent increase in its average length of stay — in part because of its more luxurious new building and proximity to a bus line, but more significantly because of hard economic times when more families can no longer provide for their children. Longer stays have become necessary also because clients have more severe problems, including psychologically disturbed teens who once could have sought treatment at now-closed residential treatment centers such as St. Joseph’s.
However, anticipated new U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines may set stricter limits on the length of stay in homeless shelters, potentially forcing the agency to choose between what’s best for its clients versus $600,000 annually in HUD money.
HUD funds were the agency’s second-largest source of funding in its $3.2 million budget last year. The biggest chunk comes from private sources — $750,000 from individual donations, corporate and foundation grants and fundraising events.
Andre Cole, 21, is a prime example of how longer stays can be beneficial. He came to the program in October 2008, quickly moving from the emergency shelter into longer-term housing. A year ago, he earned the right to move into his own apartment in east Dayton as part of Daybreak’s independent living program. The agency co-signs the lease and continues to help the clients balance their budgets. “We wean them,” explained case manager Matt West.
Cole has lived up to his end, holding a job at the Dayton Mall Burger King while attending high school at Life Skills, where he expects to graduate in January. He passed the Ohio Graduation Test last month on his fourth try.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” Cole said, after Life Skills teacher Douglas Cooper drove to his workplace to deliver the news. The test was Cole’s last obstacle to his goal of studying criminal justice at Sinclair Community College.
He continues to attend Daybreak’s Wednesday night coffee cafe, where teens recite poetry or perform songs and dances. “It brings out a lot of emotions,” he said. “You can express yourself at the coffee club, and then you don’t have to cry any more.”