Local organization aims to help young people experiencing homelessness in Columbus

File photo (WBNS-10TV)

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Homeless advocates say on any night in Columbus, there are dozens of young people, between the ages of 12 and 24 living on the street.

“I kind of got used to living like that every single day and it was mentally draining,” said Wesley Mercer. He just turned 19 and recently spent six months living homeless in south Columbus.

“After the third week of being homeless, I stopped going to school because I couldn't take a shower and I didn't have any clean clothes. I'd be embarrassed to go to school because if I can smell myself, somebody else can smell me and that's really, really embarrassing to me," he said.

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Mercer lived in his car, parking on different streets at night so he wouldn't draw attention.

“We've had young people who'll stay at McDonald's as late as it's open,” said Amanda Leclerc of Huckleberry House, the only 24-hour shelter for homeless teens in Central Ohio. “They’ll ride COTA buses as long as they can ride them until it's not an option, we've had young people sleeping in emergency rooms to blend in.”

Huckleberry House shelters roughly 500 teens every year, but there are hundreds more they can't.

Huckleberry House (WBNS-10TV)

Wesley spent last winter in that car, putting blankets up against the windows to keep as much body heat as possible inside.

Revish: “Did you ever get sick?”

Mercer: “Yeah, a couple times. I wouldn’t eat a lot. Not because I didn’t want to eat, but because my stomach had gotten so small.”

Kyra Crockett-Hodge of Huckleberry House told 10TV, “I think we often misconstrue or judge young people who are homeless and automatically assume that it's their fault or they're up to no good or they're in this place because they want to wreak havoc instead of looking at it from the aspect of they just need somewhere to be."

Huckleberry House found a spot for Wesley in its transitional living program. They placed him in one of the 40 units they have around town that teaches homeless youth, between the ages of 18 and 24, how to live on their own. He can stay in the one-bedroom apartment for up to 18 months.

Wesley Mercer

Afterward, Huckleberry House helps the young tenants find market-rate housing. By then, they’ve found jobs, learned how to budget their money and received the life skills necessary to make it on their own.

Huckleberry House managers say the biggest challenge to lowering the homeless rate is finding affordable housing. They say some low-income families in desperate financial conditions put their older teens out because they can’t afford to feed and clothe them anymore.

If you know a teen who’s homeless, there’s a 24-hour crisis line you can call for help at (614) 294-5553. You can also go to Huckleberry House's website.

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