Life for Elijah Allen, 20, has been a long road.
The Durham man’s journey has gone from stints with homelessness to recently receiving his diploma and becoming a certified nursing assistant.
Growing up among 11 siblings in a rural community near the South Carolina and Georgia state line, his family sometimes went without running water or lights. To eat, they often cooked on a grill.
“My friends would always say, ‘Y’all cook out every day,’” Allen said. “ I’d tell them we just liked cooking on the grill.”
Adding to issues, he acted out in school and often clashed with his parents. One day during an argument, Allen’s father fell and had to be hospitalized.
About 70 years old at the time, his father died a few weeks later, and Allen said his mother blamed him.
“It was too much stress with my mom not wanting me,” he said. “I ran away when she threatened me with boot camp.”
At 15, after the family moved to Durham, Allen entered foster care. He changed families and high schools so often he lost count.
According to the National Council for Adoption, 402,378 children were in foster care in 2013. The number who aged out of foster care without permanent family connections was 19,499.
One in four foster youth aging out of care do not have high school diplomas or GEDs.
At 18 Allen joined Job Corps, the free education and job-training program helping low-income students as young as 16 receive high school diplomas or GEDs.
But his disobedience got him kicked out of the program, and he became homeless.
“That’s when I started to see it’s real out there,” Allen said.
He slept in parks many nights and found himself at Urban Ministries homeless shelter on others.
Here he met Alex Protzman, executive director at Life Skills Foundation, a Durham-based nonprofit helping homeless and at-risk youth ages 16 to 22 become independent.
“I messed it up”
Life Skills, at 2670 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., serves about 90 to 100 people annually in Durham and Orange counties. In addition to housing, in Life Skills programs youth work on employment and improving mental health.
Although numbers on Durham homeless can be elusive, the county estimates 14 percent are children. Life Skills estimates 80 to 90 transition-age youth in Durham are homeless or considered severely housing unstable.
The National Council for Adoption estimates about 40 percent of youth that age out of foster care have spent time homeless.
Protzman said housing instability is a major issue.
“If you are couch surfing and sleeping where you can, then that is your priority,” he said. “Not work or school.”
Housing aid ranges from Life Skills’ own house to various apartments in town. It celebrated the grand opening of its Transitional Housing Apartments last fall. The new housing consists of two buildings with four units each holding two bedrooms.
All students have a social worker and a transitional case manager. Staff generally has contact with students several times each week.
Generally, young people in Life Skills can stay up to a year but services may be tailored individually. Participants are expected to work at least 35 hours a week or attend school.
Initially housing is free but after about three months students are expected to contribute to rent. It often starts as little as $50 monthly and steadily increases.
Money paid is put aside to aid students when they move out on their own.
Sometimes it takes time for youth to grasp the full benefits, as it was for Allen.
“I cared a little bit but didn’t care enough,” Allen said. “I messed it up.”
Allen did not to follow Life Skills’ rules and got caught trying to rent out his room. He was removed from the program.
“Sometimes they have to hit rock bottom,” Protzman said.
Wake up shaking
Allen found himself on the streets again.
“I’d wake up shaking because it was so cold in winter,” Allen said. “A lot of times I wanted to die.”
Life in and out of the shelter is not “fun” at 18 years old, he said and it “makes you want to get ahead.”
He wanted better but had to start from the bottom. He did not even have identification.
As he worked on getting his birth certificate to establish himself, his social worker urged him to give Protzman another try. When he was too embarrassed to call, they called for him.
Protzman gave Allen the same room he had tried to rent out before.
“It made me cry,” Allen said.
Allen graduated from Job Corps with his diploma last spring and lives in a rooming house. He plans to continue studying nursing.
Allen said being homeless causes him to now feel for the less fortunate.
He would like to be like Protzman and help those down on their luck.
“I don’t know where Alex came from or why he does what he does,” Allen said. “If there were real super heroes he would be one.”