One thousand, six hundred students are homeless in IPS alone, according to Kristin Cutler, IPS media relations coordinator. Outreach, Inc. is the first organization in Indianapolis specifically for homeless teens.
In 1994, Outreach founder and CEO Eric Howard realized that there must be more to life than the way he was living.
“I became sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Howard said. “What I was doing left me feeling sort of empty, isolated, and what I thought was success and what was success were two different things.”
He read a report on homeless teens in Indiana around that time. One night, he loaded his car with PB&Js, bottled water, blankets, socks and basic first aid supplies, and started driving around Indianapolis, not knowing what to expect.
Two years later, he established Outreach on Indy’s east side, running it out of an actual house rather than an institutional setting.
“We become almost a surrogate family,” Howard said. “A lot of it is the relational aspect: the more they draw into us, the more we draw into them.”
These services have two prongs: site- and community-based. The site-based program provides basic needs, counseling, case management, referrals, and help obtaining state I.D.s, birth certificates and social security cards. The community-based program is known as G.O.A.L.
“G.O.A.L. stands for graduation, occupation, address and lifestyle. We’re partnering with schools to make sure we see the kids through to graduation,” Howard said.
Since 2008, Outreach has helped 198 students graduate. The organization also offers scholarships to students pursuing a post-secondary education, which ⅔ of Outreach’s graduates have done, according to Howard.
“These kids are the part of the bell curve that statistically shouldn’t have made it, but did,” said Howard.
One of these students, Chelsea Snyder, 20, is the perfect example of Outreach’s mission. Snyder’s family was generationally abusive. Her relatives sexually abused and trafficked her until she entered the foster system at age four. For two years, she bounced from foster home to foster home.
“I was considered a ‘problem child’ because of all the things I’d been through,” she said. “Because of that, nobody wanted me.”
When she was six, a family adopted her, but they verbally, sexually and physically abused her until kicking her out at age 18. She soon found herself being trafficked again for basic needs.
“I was still able to graduate though. That was the only thing until Jesus that I was like, ‘Hallelujah!’”
Outreach is a Christian organization that serves youth ages 14-24. These individuals have experienced unimaginable things—from being abused and prostituted, to witnessing abuse and even murders. Some have been addicts or attempted suicide.
“We have kids that span the gamut—Atheists, Agnostics; some are professing Wiccan and Islam. They’re homosexual, straight and bisexual—every perspective. We accept and love them all, but we respond from where our faith motivates us as followers of Christ,” Howard said.
Snyder accepted Christ through one of her case managers, and considers the entire Outreach network her family.
“They’ve been in my life consistently for two years now, and that’s the only consistency I’ve ever had,” she said.
She now lives in an apartment and recently interned for a non-profit that educates the public on human trafficking.
“I want to pour myself out to people,” Snyder said. “I want to not just be healed from this stuff, but move on in life and help other people with it.”
Society has a thick stigma about homelessness. When many think of the homeless, they think of people sitting on the streets holding signs. They think dirty. They think lazy. However, when I visited Outreach, everyone there looked like your average teen. This is the changing face of homelessness.
“They have goals and desires. They have dreams they want to accomplish,” Howard said. “They’re young people who are incredibly bright—incredibly articulate—but because of circumstance beyond their control, have found themselves in a homeless situation.”