The Department of Housing and Urban Development does not consider young people who couch surf to be homeless. The four categories included in the agency’s homelessness definition do not include when a young person goes from house to house for a place to sleep at night.
“While couch-surfing is not specifically referenced in any of these portions of the definition, it is possible that youth who are couch-surfing may qualify under one of [the] categories — most commonly under [Imminent Risk of Homelessness] or [Fleeing Domestic Violence,]” the agency said in an email.
HUD provides a guide to help communities determine when a youth qualifies as homeless under their definition. But HUD’s definition doesn’t make sense to Rosy Arroyo, administrator of Camden County’s Youth Services Commission.
For her, couch surfing is not only a form of homelessness — it’s also a safety issue.
“Some young people can’t be in certain areas and it becomes unsafe,” she said. “They then become homeless because they’re trying to navigate other ways around being in that situation, which ultimately still leaves them in sticky situations.”
Arroyo and her colleagues operate under the McKinney-Vento definition of homeless, which is a broader determinant compared with HUD’s definition.
Young people in Camden County lack access to transitional housing. The waiting list for an adolescent housing hub is “extensive,” and can last from six months to two years, according to Arroyo.
Among the organizations the county partners with is the Center for Family Services and the Camden Center for Youth Development, which is taking the lead on a restorative and transformative justice hub.
They also work with Covenant House New Jersey, which has transitional housing an hour away by car in Atlantic City.
‘Our main focus ultimately… is to house youth’
Covenant House operates emergency and transitional housing in Atlantic City. The organization did have a drop-in center in Camden from 2012 to 2019. But not having any type of shelter made it difficult to operate there.
“We had every aspect as far as case planning goes where we were helping in different aspects,” said Kenneth Greer, associate director of housing for Covenant House New Jersey, who managed the Camden drop-in center from 2017 until it closed. “But our ultimate goal of Covenant House is to house youth.”
Another challenge for the organization was assisting youth with jobs and transportation.
“Ultimately a lot of the jobs were in Cherry Hill or Pennsauken or the surrounding areas,” Greer added. “It was quite difficult for youth to figure out how to work and figure out where they were going to sleep at.”
Covenant House continues to receive referrals for youth who are in need of shelter, but it’s a challenge to convince them to leave a tough situation in Camden and regroup in Atlantic City.
“It’s always a challenge to try to uproot someone from what they know and with people they may know and connections that they may know to move to a place that is foreign to them,” Greer said.
A ‘culture shock’
Life changed for Cliff Chavous at five-years-old when his parents died. Originally from New York, he was adopted before he moved to New Jersey with his new family.
“Camden was a spot that my adopted family always hung around,” he recalled.
Chavous, 25, claims his adopted family were abusive. He wound up on the streets after they misused money meant for him from his birth parents’ Social Security.
“I was not so much upset, but just more hurt than anything,” he recalled. “I think, to be honest, Covenant House kind of took up for that. The way they treated me was with great respect and admiration and I kind of really appreciated it.”
A friend called Covenant House in Camden for Chavous, who then connected with Greer. Chavous eventually moved to their shelter in Atlantic City, describing it as new ground.
“I used to come to Atlantic City as a kid for vacations during the summertime. I had never actually lived here,” he said. “It was a big wake-up call. It’s a culture shock for me.”
Though the two cities are different, Chavous sensed “a lot of inner city love” in Atlantic City.
Currently, he is focusing on his mental health. Chavous plays keyboard, drums, “and seven other instruments.” He hopes to return to school to study physics and telecommunications to pursue entertainment and production.
Chavous points out how knowing physics is helpful for musicians.
“You’re kind of working with [sound] by ear,” he said. “That’s usually how I do my music.”
Greer said Covenant House New Jersey would love to have a more permanent presence in Camden, but they want to establish some type of housing, whether it’s an emergency shelter or transitional housing.
“It’s still a need in Camden, we’re still waiting for that opportunity to happen,” he said.
Despite no physical presence, the organization continues to maintain connections in Camden; they participate in committee meetings on youth homelessness, hold fundraisers, and stay connected to events they would make appearances at.
“We just have to work a little bit harder and face that challenge and not ignore and turn our back on it because Camden is a part of Covenant House,” said Greer.
Camden County is in the early stages of a transitional housing project that includes wraparound services for young people 16 to 24. Arroyo said it was in the early, design stages, but they would like to duplicate a model developed by Hopeworks called C.R.I.B., or Community Responding In Belief.