Homeless teens find shelter, and hope, at Tumbleweed

homeless teens, Tumbleweed, Phoenix, Arizona, runaways, shelter
Left: Akilah (17) and her daughter Skai (2) found a home at Tumbleweed. Cheryl Moore, the nonprofit’s assistant program director, works to help the hundreds of homeless youth in the Valley. Photo by Tac Coluccio.

Tonight and every night, at least 600 young people in Arizona will find themselves sleeping on the streets. They are homeless — runaways, castoffs, troubled teens — with no place to go.

The reasons they’re on the streets are as different as they are, but for every story there’s a common thread: They all need some help to find their way back to a safe place.

For 17-year-old Akilah, that safe place is Tumbleweed, a Phoenix nonprofit that offers resources and emergency housing to homeless teens and young adults ages 12 to 25. Akilah didn’t come here alone. She’s a teen mom whose own mother turned her away when Akilah became pregnant at 15.

“She kind of like kicked me out, so that’s how that went,” says Akilah, who moved from place to place until finding a home for herself and her daughter, Skai, now 2, at Tumbleweed. The facility has served thousands of teenagers since opening its doors in 1975.

“I feel like they’re there for us if we need them, like if we need to talk or something,” Akilah says of Tumbleweed’s staff members and counselors.

Akilah is getting her life back on track. With a home, and Tumbleweed’s support, she has had a chance to return to school, get a job and even save some money for the future.

Imagine being afraid to close your eyes at night. That’s a reality for most of the young people Tumbleweed helps, says Cheryl Moore, assistant program director.

“Some of our kids, when they come here they will tell you, ‘I’ve been sleeping in the park,’ [or] ‘I’ve been sleeping in a stairwell for six months’,” Moore says.

Each Tumbleweed resident is responsible for his or her own apartment at one of two facilities.
“They take great pride in their apartments,” Moore says. “This is the first time they can actually sleep, because they don’t have to keep an eye open because they’re afraid someone is going to rob them or assault them. [And] they have actual food.”

Finding the kids who need help

Tumbleweed outreach crews roam the streets in a mobile van and pass out fliers to homeless young people they encounter.

Those who seek help are first assessed by caseworkers who determine what services they need. Tumbleweed has two housing facilities with a total of 64 beds. Five other facilities accommodate nearly 100 more children with services ranging from medical care to short-term emergency housing.

Counselors help teens continue their education and develop skills they’ll need — such as finding a job, learning  how to manage money — to live independently.

Tumbleweed also offers a reunification program. Many of the teens who come to Tumbleweed believe all their “bridges have been burned,” but that’s often not the case, Moore says. Sometimes when the organization reaches out, families can be reunited.

Akilah has taken advantage of all the program offers. She graduated from high school in May and plans to attend Mesa Community College in August. She hopes to move into a place of her own, with her daughter.

HOW TO HELP: Tumbleweed can use basic donations, including school supplies, clothing, bottled water and toiletry items. Pet food and supplies also are needed, because many teens leave home with a beloved pet companion. 480-268-0176 or tumbleweed.org.

Homeless teens — the statistics

  • More than half a million U.S. teens and young adults are homeless for a week or longer each year, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
  • About 60 percent of those teens report being raped, assaulted or robbed while homeless, according to a study from the Administration for Children and Families (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
  • Most teens have been homeless for an average of two years, and more than half first became homeless after a parent or caregiver told them to leave home, according to the same study, which was conducted in Arizona and 10 other states.
  • Tumbleweed estimates there are 600 to 800 homeless youth ages 12 to 25 in Maricopa County at any given time. Studies the organization has done with Arizona State University find about 35 percent of the young people Tumbleweed serves come from the foster-care system, and 38 percent identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Tumbleweed also helps sex-trafficking survivors.