Amanda George remembers the bitter cold as she sat on a park bench in Connecticut with no place to go. No escape from the weather. No warm meal to soothe the ache of hunger rooted deep in her stomach. George was on her own at age 17, spending nights on friends' couches and, later, six months in a shelter.
"It seems like everything's against me, but I try to keep a positive attitude," said George, now 22. "I get depressed. I get sad. A lot of things are discouraging. But out of every negative thing comes something positive."
George was one of six formerly homeless youths to speak to politicians and community members as part of the Homeless Youth Forum on Wednesday at the Straz Center for Performing Arts. Presented by the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, the forum was held to call attention to the problems faced daily by homeless youths throughout Tampa Bay.
George and the five other panelists came on stage as the audience watched a 10-minute video about their lives. A couple of the youths watched the screen. Others looked away. They already knew the stories. Alcoholic fathers. Mothers who did drugs. Abusive families. Parents going in and out of jail. Growing up in a home where safety doesn't exist. Getting slapped just for laughing. Being hit, choked, abused. Fearing the extension cord and 2 x 4s.
And then, when they managed to escape, finding themselves alone on the streets, constantly searching for a meal and a place to sleep, not knowing how they'd get through the next 24 hours.
Statewide, about 6,000 children are homeless a year, Gov. Rick Scott said. The 2011 homeless count in Hillsborough County put the number of unaccompanied, homeless youths at 200. These children often lack access to health care and struggle with inadequate immunization and dental care. Malnutrition and obesity are rampant. HIV is up to 40 percent higher in homeless youths, Ken Kavanagh of Adolescent Trials Network said. And care for mental health issues such as depression, ADHD and bipolar disorder is almost nonexistent.
"I spent a lot of time alone, and if not alone, then feeling like I was alone," George said. "If you do turn to someone, what do you say?"
Many of the youths expressed a fear of adults, distrust of government and an uncertainty of what services could and would be provided for them. The six months George spent in the shelter before moving to Florida for warmth and a job taught her a lot about life, she said. They humbled her.
"I consider myself a warrior, not a survivor," George said. "A survivor can just hide behind a rock and wait for the storm to pass. A warrior is someone who gets out there and fights for what they need to do."
Scott was in the crowd, listening as the youths shared their stories. Shortly after, he signed House Bill 1351, known as the Unaccompanied Youth Bill, into law. Drafted by five Armwood High School seniors, the law makes it easier for homeless youths to acquire important documents, such as birth certificates.
"It's nice to sign this bill," Scott said. "Homelessness, alcoholism, drugs, all the issues these young people are dealing with, it impacts families all across the state."
When asked what resources they needed the most, the youths were nearly unanimous in their answer: jobs. Resources are one thing. A government that cares is another. But without an income, they remain trapped in the same cycle, the youths said. If they do manage to land a job, a difficult challenge without experience, then transportation looms as the next hurdle.
George, who studies behavioral health at Brewster Technical Center, tries to stay positive. Her motto in life is to pay it forward. It's been a hard five years, but she's thankful for the support system surrounding her.
"Tampa, in general, has more resources than anywhere else I've experienced." George said. "I've been homeless in Connecticut, I've lived in Georgia, and Florida is by far very helpful."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)226-3111.