A look at teen homelessness in Philly, through one young man’s eyes


    Picture a homeless person in Philadelphia. Chances are you probably aren’t thinking of a child. Yet at least one of every 20 students in the city’s public high schools has been homeless.

    As part of a special report on poverty with the Philadelphia Daily News, AxisPhilly, Temple University and the Media Mobilizing Project, NewsWorks spoke to a young man who lived on the city’s streets during his teenage years. 

    By day, Malachi Armstrong attended a Philadelphia high school whose motto was “excellence, no excuses.”

    By night, he was homeless and far away from adults with high expectations.

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    “For five years, I was away from my family,” he said. “They thought I was dead.”

    Armstrong, now 21, says his grandmother kicked him out of her house when he was 16 because she caught him being intimate with a girl. The other adults in his life were nowhere to be found or struggled with drug problems, he says.

    At first, he hopped from couch to couch. Sometimes, he stayed with friends whose homes were so filthy he didn’t dare take a shower.

    “I was in certain houses where I was like, ‘Nope, I’ll just use the sink,’ ” he said.

    More than 2,000 students in the city’s public high schools, or one in 20, have experienced homelessness, according to a 2013 report by the People’s Emergency Center. The nonprofit says the percentage of high-schoolers who report that they have run away from their homes, been abandoned or been kicked out increased to 11 percent in 2011 from 5 percent in 2009.

    While Armstrong was homeless, he was enrolled at the Mastery Shoemaker Campus in West Philadelphia, a charter school for grades seven through 12. He sometimes took out his anger on teachers and got in fights, but school administrators didn’t kick him out. In fact, he says, they provided him with a desperately needed support system.

    They gave him “chance after chance after chance,” he said, “because they knew my situation.”

    Teachers bought him uniforms, school supplies, food. They let him go on school trips even though he couldn’t pay for them. They gave him special roles in school performances.

    Armstrong says school was his “outlet.” When asked what public officials can do to combat poverty, it’s no surprise that he shoots back, “Stop cutting education.”

    Making a fresh start

    Eventually, Armstrong sought help at Covenant House, a nonprofit that provides emergency shelter and transitional housing for homeless youth.

    “It was a fresh start,” he said. “It was somewhere where I could take that little bit of maturity that I had, and take it somewhere where it had potential to grow.”

    And Armstrong did grow. He graduated from high school last year. He moved into a two-bedroom transitional unit and got a job at Chipotle. Working long hours at the chain restaurant was “nothing,” he said, because he had endured living on the streets.

    Armstrong left Covenant House in February, and reconnected with his grandmother. He is currently living with her and helping to repair her home.

    “She calls me the love of her life now,” he said.

    Overall, though, Armstrong’s transition into adulthood has been rocky. His story reveals how difficult it is to escape poverty — and the past.

    Armstrong left Chipotle and worked as a busboy for nearly a year, but was recently fired for being late too often. He plans to look for another job after he finishes fixing up his grandmother’s house. Meanwhile, some family members won’t accept Armstrong unless he uses drugs, he says.

    “The family’s so torn apart,” he said. “Truthfully, I only came back to try to be the salvation of it.”

    Hugh Organ, associate executive director of Convenant House, said it is not unusual for his clients to lose ground after leaving the shelter and returning to their families.

    And avoiding pitfalls

    “At times, they’re sucked back into some of the negative things that may be going on within their families, and family members end up taking advantage of them,” he said. “To be quite honest, it happens all the time.”

    Organ says he tries to teach young people to set boundaries with their families. But that’s easier said than done.

    “Every kid wants to be loved, and every kid wants to be a part of a family, no matter how dysfunctional at times,” he said. “It’s still family.”

    Armstrong’s setbacks haven’t dampened his dreams, though. He wants to become a truck driver, write music, maybe even start a family. He admits he may have to distance himself from some of the people he grew up with to achieve that.

    “I want better,” he said. “I might have to step away and do better for myself, and then try to come back.”

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