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Old Saybrook High School seniors Ana Hester (left) and Shannon Braumann with a persona representing teens facing housing insecurity. Their project raises awareness of the problem and solicits donations to help. (Photo by Wendy Mills )
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My name is Eli. I am from New London, CT. I am a 17 year-old high school student. Eighteen months ago, I was kicked out my home by my parents when they found out I was gay. Summer is coming, and I don’t have the money to buy the things that I need.
Eli is a persona, a character created to promote awareness and understanding of teens facing housing insecurity. He is one of seven teens represented by stuffed sweatshirts topped by hats, which have been placed in boxes at various locations around town. The goal: To solicit donations for real teens facing real crises in real towns, including Old Saybrook.
The items Eli is requesting are deodorant, toothbrushes and toothpaste, shoes, razors, hairbrushes, backpacks, t-shirts, face wash, and portable chargers.
The personas were conceived as “a compilation of the typical—if there is such a thing—issues that surround teen housing insecurities,” said Wendy Mill, program director at Old Saybrook Youth & Family Services (OSYFS). She is guiding this senior project by Old Saybrook High School (OSHS) seniors Ana Hester and Shannon Braumann.
The personas are “each asking for donations based on a story that each person has as to why they’re homeless,” said Hester. “There’s a different name, background, and a different list of supplies for each persona.”
Hester and Braumann are working with shelters and youth agencies in New London, Middletown, and New Haven to get these teens some of the things they need. They are also urging their friends and neighbors not only to donate, but to think about and discuss a problem that is not limited to people and places far away. A portion of donated items will remain at OSYFS in Old Saybrook for use by local teens.
“What we want to do with this project is to make change and help those individuals,” said Hester. “Not just raise awareness, but that’s definitely one of our most important aspects to it.
“One of the most common misconceptions about housing insecurities is that we don’t expect it in our small shoreline community,” she continued. “We think of someone who is living on the streets in a more urban area. We do get housing-insecure people in our community. They may be couch surfing. They might not be out in the public all the time. It’s a more hidden problem.”
Mill explained that “‘homeless’ is a term that has become stigmatized over the years.” The term “housing insecurity” wraps in people who may live in temporary housing, or lack stability in their homes.
“They could be jumping from home to home over a period of time,” Mill said. “They could be families or individuals who have housing that’s only available for a temporary period of time. Along the shoreline, housing may only be available in the winter months, only an academic rental. That’s not what we consider a stable home for a long period of time.”
The project kicked off with a film screening at the Vicki Duffy Pavilion at Saybrook Point one Friday evening in April. The Homestretch is a documentary that tells the story of three teens faced with housing insecurity who are struggling to stay in school, create stable lives for themselves, and look toward a better future.
About 30 people viewed the film, which was followed by a discussion spurred by question cards composed and handed out by Hester and Braumann.
“It was a wonderful, rich part of the evening,” said Mill. “Following the screening, we had a group form a circle with their chairs for an open discussion.” The question cards “provided a framework for the discussion. It was a wonderful opportunity for people to share some of their thoughts.”
No one in the audience identified themselves as someone who has faced homelessness or housing insecurity, Mill said, but more than one said they’d provided homes for teens in need.
One of the topics of discussion was the role of government in addressing the issue, Hester said, and “whether the federal government or the state government should have jurisdiction.”
The group came to the conclusion that “the federal government might have more of the funds,” she said. “However, the state government should have the responsibility of putting those funds to use because they know the population.
“I thought [the discussion] went very well,” Hester continued. “I think that the one problem that we faced was that it was such a short amount of time. We came to a lot of conclusions about what we wanted to do, but I would love to have a follow up with those people and even more [people], hopefully to talk about actions steps that we can take.”
Hester will attendthe University of Vermont in the fall, where she plans to major in human development and family studies. Braumann is headed to the University of Tampa and was one of eight students accepted to its Bonner Leader Program, a four-year work and scholarship program. She will work nine hours per week at a non-profit organization in the Tampa area.
“With each year you get more responsibility,” she said.
Personas—and boxes in which to donate items—can be found at OSYFS, Town Hall, Park & Recreation, Funktion Fitness, Mirsina’s Restaurant, Acton Public Library, and Old Saybrook High School. The program runs through Friday, May 10.
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