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Vicki Sokolik tells her story of helping unhoused youth

The Tampa activist’s “If You See Them” is a compelling revelation of an often invisible problem and her efforts to solve it.
 
Vicki Sokolik is the author of "If You See Them: Young, Unhoused, and Alone in America."
Vicki Sokolik is the author of "If You See Them: Young, Unhoused, and Alone in America." [ Spiegel & Grau ]
Published Feb. 5|Updated Feb. 5

Vicki Sokolik had years of experience as a volunteer, much of it working to help homeless families.

Then her teenage son brought home a problem she hadn’t seen before, and Sokolik found her calling.

Sokolik, who lives in Tampa, tells the story in her clear-eyed and moving new book, “If You See Them: Young, Unhoused, and Alone in America.” It will be published next week, and Sokolik will be talking about it at several local events.

The book combines personal memoir with the compelling story of how Sokolik founded Starting Right, Now, a nonprofit organization designed to help unhoused young people.

What her son, Cameron, brought home one day was his classmate Amanda. Both were in their high school’s International Baccalaureate program, a launching pad for academic high achievers, and Amanda seemed to have a bright future.

But the next year, Cameron reported that Amanda had told her teachers that she would have to drop out of IB. She had moved out of her mother’s household because of domestic violence, and she had to have a full-time job.

“She and her boyfriend are sleeping on his brother’s couch,” Cameron told his mom. “She’s already made it through three years of IB. I don’t want her to drop out in the last stretch. That would be so wrong.”

What, he asked, could Sokolik do to help?

From her volunteer work, she had plenty of know-how about connecting people with social service agencies and programs. And she had plenty of personal resources. She grew up in Dallas, in a loving family so well-off their house was used to film some scenes for the hit TV series named after the city. Her husband, Joel, is a neuroradiologist. Her cousin, Matt Silverman, is president of the Tampa Bay Rays.

She hadn’t experienced poverty, but she had been through emotional hard times — her daughter, Cori, had a serious medical condition that in her childhood required multiple surgeries and months of hospital stays.

Sokolik emerged from that experience with a deep desire to help other people. But she discovered that helping kids like Amanda would be a whole new challenge.

Such young people aren’t runaways in the usual sense of kids whose families want them back. They aren’t in foster care or wards of the state. They live on their own for countless reasons: Their parents are abusive or neglectful, addicted or in jail or mentally ill, or simply absent. In many cases, terrible things have happened to them. They are, Sokolik writes, “children who must make adult decisions.”

No one knows how many of them there are. There is no safety net for them. They’re usually not eligible for foster care; flawed as that system may be, it provides at least a place to sleep. For these kids, even that basic need is often lacking.

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The government, Sokolik notes, does have a name for them: “unaccompanied homeless youth.” But it doesn’t have much more to offer them; they are largely invisible in policy decisions and program funding.

So Sokolik took the challenge. Early on, in 2007, she happened to attend a neighborhood meeting where the guest speaker was then-Mayor Pam Iorio. Sokolik talked to her briefly about her work and was surprised when the mayor called her to come in for a meeting. After Sokolik and her husband explained their approach to helping unhoused kids, Iorio said, “If I help you get a board of directors, would you be willing to do this work citywide for me?”

Soon Sokolik was persuading governments and school districts in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to lease her buildings she could renovate into community housing. She was setting up mentorships and teaching basic life skills to kids who didn’t know how to make a bed because they’d never had one.

She was also learning that every case, every kid, was different.

One of the most engaging things about “If You See Them” is Sokolik’s refreshing ability to look at her own learning curve, and her own mistakes. From the start, with Amanda, she learned that there are times that she must step up for these young people. She also learned the hard way that there are times she must step back.

The book is enriched by the sometimes inspiring, sometimes heart-breaking first-person stories of some of the young people helped by Starting Right, Now.

Sokolik also recounts the stories of many individual kids, and she’s not sentimental about them. They can be sullen or mistrustful or self-destructive. And even those who are receptive to help can get thrown off track by things most of us take for granted. Need a job? You’ll need a Social Security card. Don’t have one? You’ll need your birth certificate, and if you’re a minor your parent or guardian must request it. For an unhoused young person who might not even know where his or her parents are, that seems an unsurmountable obstacle.

But Sokolik is undeterred, and one young man she helps with this problem ends up being the force behind passage in the Florida Legislature of a law giving unaccompanied minors the right to a certified copy of their birth certificate. And from him, in turn, she learns the value of supporting legislation, one more powerful tool in her kit.

“If You See Them” tells some shocking, emotionally wrenching stories, but its essential and inspiring message is about how even the worst problems, once seen, can be solved.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the organization.

If You See Them: Young, Unhoused, and Alone in America

By Vicki Sokolik

Spiegel & Grau, 337 pages, $30

Meet the author

Vicki Sokolik will be in conversation about “If You See Them” with WFLA news anchor Stacie Schaible at 7 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Tickets $5 for admission, $30 for admission and a copy of the book at oxfordexchange.com/pages/calendar.

Tombolo Books presents Sokolik in conversation about “If You See Them” with TV host Allison Goodlove at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 at The Studio@620, 620 First Ave. S., St. Petersburg. Tickets $30 for one admission and one copy of the book, $35 for two admissions and one book at tombolobooks.com/events.