The building doesn’t look like much from the outside — it's a tangle of thick cement walls, iron bars and pavement — but beyond the locked gate is a haven for young adults seeking reprieve from hardships. Black, leather couches in the community room invite new clients to release their stress as they sink into comforting support.
A television murmurs in the background, a mismatched collection of art and flyers clutter the walls, and a pile of donated bread rests on the kitchen counter nearby. The stained taupe carpet has seen better days, but a vase of flowers and light falling through the sheer curtains are small hints of home.
Samantha Stevens simultaneously felt nervous and excited when she arrived — she never had a stable place to call her own before.
In January, the 20-year-old from Temecula moved into SafeHouse's Harrison House, a residential program for young adults ages 18 to 21 in Thousand Palms. She finally felt at ease.
At Harrison House, young adults share a two-bedroom apartment with one roommate and have access to counseling, job-placement services, homework help, life-skills training and other supportive services. They each are expected to cook their own meals, save money, clean their apartments and work toward goals.
“If not for the Harrison House, I don’t think I would be here – maybe physically, but I wouldn’t be living mentally,” Stevens said. “I looked at my family and saw how my life was going to be. Everyone else did drugs and drank. I felt stuck and that’s not how I wanted my life to be.”
Stevens’ housing situation is fortunate: According to data from Riverside County, most homeless young adults can’t access transitional housing because there are few such programs available.
Not-so-happy 18th birthday
Riverside County's 2019 point-in-time homeless count uncovered startling differences in the unsheltered rates of those 18 years and older, and those who are younger.
Of the 181 homeless young adults ages 18-24 counted in the county, about 69% were unsheltered.
36 of those young adults, or about about 20% of the total, were in the Coachella Valley.
Of the 214 homeless children 17 years and younger counted in Riverside County, only about 7% were unsheltered.
Experts say this disparity is because federal directives demand that immediate housing be found for children 17 and younger. At 18, mandates no longer apply and as a result, young-adult specific programs are few and far between.
"The difference is consistent with national data on youth homelessness," said Natalie Komuro, Riverside County Homelessness Solutions executive officer. "Likely reasons for this may be that there are mechanisms to return minor children who leave home to their legal guardians. This changes when they reach 18."
While a year makes all the difference in the law, the reality is that many young adults haven't developed the skills necessary to be on their own by their 18th birthday.
Simple things like how to do laundry and cook can be daunting if young adults were never taught those skills. And larger issues, like learning how to pay bills, apply for college financial aid and find a job that pays enough to afford rent with no work history can be overwhelming without guidance.
And at an age in which they are just trying fit in with their peers, young adults sometimes feel embarrassed to ask for help.
“They are 18 and are supposed to know everything,” said Calista Vassios, SafeHouse's development officer. “When I turned 18, I didn’t know how to ‘adult’ and I lived with my parents for some years after that and then when I finally did move out, I still had their support through everything. These kids don’t have that. It’s a difficult age to be thrown into the world without someone to call.”
Overcoming a struggle: Samantha’s story
Unlike most youths experiencing homelessness, Stevens found a supportive housing program when she was 19. The program was aimed at transitioning her into a stable adulthood — something that’s needed on a larger scale, local officials said.
When asked how she’s doing in the transitional program, she first talks about how her father and younger sister are doing; putting herself first is something she’s not used to.In the past year, child protective services took her sister away from her dad – a decision Stevens is thankful for because her father relapsed to his long history of opioid and meth use. And her mother, whom Stevens has never been close to because of her addictions and cycles through prison, is currently homeless.
In 1998, her father was found to be in possession of controlled substances. Stevens was born in 1999. Between 2000 and 2003, court records show that Stevens' father was ordered to do frequent drug-testing and enroll in the Riverside County substance abuse program. He was encouraged to partake in family counseling. Her father had visitation rights, but had to be supervised by Stevens' aunt during the visits.
Stevens said for most of her childhood after that, her father was clean from drug addiction but stillexhibited abusive and depressive behaviors. In 2012, court records show that a neighbor who lived in the same apartment complex as Stevens and her father had a restraining order placed against him out of fear for her safety.
Starting in seventh grade, Stevens bounced between her dad's house, her mom's house, foster care and to the care of various relatives in and out of state.
“The last time I found out my dad relapsed, I was 17. ... I told him it wasn't healthy. I told him to go to rehab.”
“The last time I found out my dad relapsed, I was 17,” she said. “I grabbed my dad’s handkerchief and his meth pipe fell out of it. He was also overdrafting his bank account and I kept telling him he couldn’t do that. He had food stamps, but that didn’t cut it for the whole month when he had two children to take care of – my sister was just 3 at the time. I told him it wasn’t healthy. I told him to go to rehab.”
For most of her life, Stevens felt sorry for her dad. But at Harrison House she found the support to know it was OK to leave the toxic situation.
“I never really wanted to leave my dad before because I needed to take care of him,” she said. “I realized I couldn’t keep doing that that if I wanted to go to college and get a job and experience life. I can’t do that if I am taking care of the adult that was supposed to be taking care of me.”
Stevens still has a tough exterior — she's been taking care of herself for a long time already. But while she doesn’t like sitting down and talking with a therapist, she says she does appreciate when her caseworker, Marcus Martinez, starts milling about the common-area kitchen. As they cook together, Martinez will effortlessly flick the conversation back and forth between recipes and serious issues concerning Stevens's life. It “makes the discussion more authentic,” she said.
Stevens also has found new coping mechanisms to replace her self-harm habits. Now she likes to hike with friends or settle in on the recreation room couch to watch television – it's someplace where she can be around people, but still relax.
Those small changes are big to her, and have helped her move on from deeper traumas.
Riverside County service gaps
To combat the growing number of homeless young adults, Billy Williams, Harrison House's counselor, said the county needs more programs like Harrison House and more peer support specialists. He said it’s much more effective to conduct outreach with this population when it’s one young adult talking to another about resources rather than an older adult making the initial contact.
Gaining the trust of young adults who grew up navigating foster care and child protective services can be tough, said Vassios, SafeHouse's development officer.
“This age group isn’t getting services, but they also don’t know how to ask for help either,” said Martinez, the case manager. “They’ve been through the system, so they don’t trust people and they are embarrassed to ask for help. We ask if they are OK with cooking and they say ‘yes’ because they are embarrassed to say ‘no,’ but then we learn they actually don’t know how to cook and that’s something we need to teach them.”
Creating more programs to meet those specific needs can't happen without more funding, though.
“Funding priorities for homelessness have long been driven by federal leadership, which has focused on ending chronic homelessness,” said Komuro, the county's Homelessness Solutions executive officer. “As a result, we have not seen a level of urgency and priority at the federal level for youth and families. This is not to say there has been no money, but continuum of care systems must address (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s) priorities to obtain funding.”
As of 2018, the Riverside Continuum of Care had 37 beds for youth, and about 20 of those were in the desert.
A few other funding sources have been identified. Late last year, the state required that a portion of its funding allocation to the county be set aside for youth programs, resulting in $489,000 earmarked for that.
"In the coming months, the continuum of care will begin strategic planning, and during that process we will have an opportunity to clarify and affirm our local priorities," Komuro said.
In May, Riverside County partnered with youth providers to apply for $1 million in grant funding to plan for and develop an expanded response to youth homelessness in the county.
In the 2017-18 fiscal year, SafeHouse received $41,979 to be used for emergency shelters for young children and food supplies from Riverside County’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program. That amount was 0.3% of the $12 million in grants distributed for homeless services through the county’s continuum of care.
The nonprofit has a $4.5 million operating budget, according to its 2017 tax filings. Most of its revenue comes from donations and grants.
“I don’t think I could have changed my path on my own.”
Harrison House, which has 21 beds for its 18-month program, is one of two wrap-around housing programs available in the Coachella Valley tailored to this age group. In Palm Springs, The Sanctuary offers similar transitional housing for LGBTQ youths who were formerly in foster care. In the city of Riverside, there are just over 100 beds between four different transitional housing programs for young adults. The Riverside County housing authority also offers young adult-specific supportive services.
While Stevens didn’t choose to be a part of this demographic, she is thankful she was connected to Harrison House.
Since moving in, Stevens secured a job at Carl’s Jr., just down the street, and is focused on saving as much money as possible – something the program requires and assists with. The program, which Stevens is about halfway through, requires residents to work a minimum of 32 hours a week, save half of their income and maintain a clean apartment. She’s not in college but hopes to be a youth counselor one day.
“The Harrison House is accepting of who you are, and they help you work toward your goals and what you want to do,” Stevens said. “I don’t think I could have changed my path on my own.”