Jay Lee is an 23-year-old Atlanta native and college student. He wakes up every morning, feeds his pet bearded dragon Joker, hangs out with friends, and works at a photography business. He strives to find a balance between work and having fun, just like any other student.
Unlike your average college student, however, Lee is homeless.
Lee attends Atlanta Technical College with a major in design and media. He hopes to become a well-known photographer and work on promotions for upcoming films. With the aid of grants and scholarships, Lee can afford the tuition of about $3700 per academic year. Resources, such as access to food pantries and vouchers to pay rent, aid students such as Lee who experience housing insecurity.
Lee had to grow up faster than most adolescents. He spent some of his childhood aging out of the foster care system. He navigated through the juvenile justice system when he was charged with theft outside of school and disorderly conduct inside of school. Just before he graduated in 2018 from Frank McClarin High School in College Park, he reunited and lived with his aunt. Time with his family was short-lived when they were evicted from their home after his high school graduated.
“I was trying to figure out my way through school since I had to move a lot going from school to school or group home to group home, my school district was constantly changing,” Lee said.
After the family’s eviction, Lee was left to figure out on his own how to find the help he needed to stay off the streets.
Low-income families who experience homelessness tend to have adolescents who also end up without a stable residence. Economic insecurity is one of the biggest contributors for this problem.
“I reached out to someone in my school, and they were like, ‘talk to the counselor. They may have some resources or something available for you at that time,’” Lee said.
He didn’t feel supported by those around him and did not want to burden or put all his personal business onto others. Yet, Lee felt as though he had no other options.
He reached out to a counselor who referred him to Covenant House Georgia, a youth shelter located in Atlanta. Lee was hesitant to stay there until he recognized some of the residents of Covenant House Georgia were peers he knew from high school.
“We’re technically considered a homeless shelter, so we obviously provide shelter to young people. But we like to think of ourselves as much more than a shelter and really a space where we wrap our arms around the young people we serve,” said Teah Bussell, the volunteer coordinator at Covenant House Georgia.
Covenant House Georgia is a 7-acre campus located on the west side of the city near Westside Park. It provides several different services to young people including case management, mental health and substance abuse support, physical health support, and career services. These are resources homeless students do not normally have access to otherwise.
“We do serve a number of young people who have had mental health struggles, whether it’s anxiety and depression or it’s you know, schizophrenia. It’s really a full spectrum and so we do have staff who will help them,” Bussell said.
Programs similar to Covenant House Georgia provide housing for many young individuals living without a fixed residence. According to a 2018 Georgia State University study, thousands of youth experience homelessness on any given night in Atlanta. Society does not realize the magnitude of the issue because homeless youth are hidden in plain sight.
In 2018 Covenant House Georgia staff, other shelters’ outreach workers, college students and others partnered with Georgia State University to conduct the Atlanta Youth Count study. Volunteers conducted sweeps of shelters, motels, and other street and community locations where homeless adolescents were known to spend time and live in the five metro counties (Fulton, Dekalb, Clayton, Cobb, and Gwinnett). The goal was to address sex and labor trafficking among individuals between the ages of 14-25 who experienced homelessness in metro Atlanta.
The results found an estimated 3,372 teenagers and young adults without a permanent home. Georgia State University Professor Eric Wright, who helped conduct the study, believes this number of homeless youth is about the same in 2023 and early 2024.
“That is always like so staggering when I think about it. And so it’s a very real issue that I think a lot of people just don’t really think about because they’re not in your face, you are not seeing it, you definitely don’t see 3,300 but it’s very real,” said Bussell.
Teenagers and others in their early 20s have a hard enough time finding a place to rest their head at night. They also safeguard their personal belongings and sentimental items.
“You’re losing your things. You’re losing the place that you call home. But you’re also losing your personal items. So, you know, someone might steal your family picture or jewelry that was passed down from generation to generation. Like little things that you tried to take with you, kind of get taken from you along the way,” said Bussell.
Several factors contribute to living on the streets, especially at a young age. A lack of affordable housing, sex and labor trafficking, violence, and other obstacles affect metro Atlanta youth on a daily basis.
“I mean probably the number one risk is potential violence, one of the things we kind of forget is that there’s a life on the streets for people who are homeless. And so you find oftentimes younger individuals are more likely to experience violence as a result of people who are homeless or other criminals out on the streets. So they tend to be a little bit more vulnerable in that regard,” said GSU Professor Eric Wright.
Covenant House Georgia pairs students with its educational support team who assist them with all the requirements that are involved with applying for college. Advocates help with personal statements, transcripts, high school diplomas, GED equivalency tests, and academic references. It partners with colleges through grants and other programs. Some students who successfully apply to specific colleges have the option to attend tuition free.
Colleges and universities including Morris Brown, Clark Atlanta, and Fort Valley State participate in this program with Covenant House Georgia. The stipulation is student applicants must be residents of Covenant House Georgia. While they attend school, they can live on campus, but during holidays and summer breaks, they live at Covenant House Georgia.
The shelter’s support helps make the challenges of a student’s educational journey easier, especially for those who already deal with the pressure of homelessness while attending a university.
“I know people that are in college experiencing homelessness, and it’s ten times harder because I’m all alone, I have to make new friends, I have to reach out to my school for resources and my advisors, that’s really the people I can depend on. I don’t really have that family support because it’s just me,” said Atlanta Technical College and Covenant House Georgia resident Jay Lee.