Part one in a Herald series about suburban poverty that we are calling "Living on the Edge."
Curled up in a blanket against the arm of a wood-frame couch on which she wriggles to get comfortable, Nia, an 18-year-old resident of Family and Children’s Walkabout for Young Men and Women, a long-term transitional house in Freeport that shelters homeless teenagers and helps them to become self-sufficient, described her daily routine.
Nia wakes up at 3 a.m. to prepare for her 6 a.m. shift at a nearby McDonald’s, catches a 4:59 bus to the restaurant, where she works until 11 a.m., and then walks to her second job as a clerk at Dollar Tree down the street. She returns to Walkabout at 9 p.m. to start a weekly chore — this week she must clean the bathroom — eat dinner, attend house meetings and, finally, crawl into bed to sleep. In between it all, she takes classes at Nassau Community College.
As she wiped fatigue from her eyes on a recent Monday, Nia, who asked that the Herald not use her last name, said she sought shelter at Walkabout after moving out of her grandparents’ house — where she had lived with a mentally ill mother and an often absent father — and bouncing among short-term emergency shelters, where she could stay for only a month at a time.
“My parents didn’t really know what they were doing — my mother was sick, my pops was not around — so I had to do everything on my own,” Nia said. “My grandparents had their own issues that were more important than me. It was hard.
“Things happen, and you just gotta learn and move on,” she continued. “I see myself as a butterfly — still growing.”
Nia, who lives at Walkabout with nine other teens, is one of almost 22,000 homeless young people across the state, according to the 2011 New York State Runaway and Homeless Youth Act report.
Thinking outside the (cardboard) box
According to a count by the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless early last year, 3,006 out of 3,123 homeless people in Nassau and Suffolk counties were placed in emergency or transitional shelters, while the other 117 remained on the streets. Nearly 50 percent of those counted, or 1,500 of them, were under age 24.