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Former NYT Journalist Writes Book on Homeless Teens

An interview with Maplewood reporter Tina Kelley, author of "Almost Home."

 

Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, written by former journalist Tina Kelley and Kevin Ryan, president of Covenant House, tells the stories of six homeless teenagers as they cope with living alone on the streets. Patch interviewed Kelley, a former New York Times reporter who was editor of The Local. She will be reading from the book at Words Bookstore on Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m., and at Maplewood Memorial Library on Oct. 17 at 10:30 a.m.

All author proceeds from the book go to support kids who benefit from Covenant House shelters and outreach programs. 

How did you go from being a reporter to a blogger to the non-profit world?   

At the end of 2009 I talked to Kevin Ryan, whom I'd written about for the Times when he was the state's Child Advocate...He had (become) the head of Covenant House, where I'd volunteered. He said he was looking for someone to write a book with about the homeless kids Covenant House serves. It had been a life-long ambition of mine to write a book about people who needed more attention from society. I took the buyout from the Times and went to work at Covenant House in January, 2010.

 

What made this a passion for you? What was the process like of researching and writing the book?

I had volunteered for homeless-related charities since college, maybe because I had felt so lucky to have had such a safe and loving home in which to grow up.

One of the biggest challenges of the book was finding the right mix of kids to profile. Every young person I ever met in the Covenant House shelters could tell a book's worth of stories, so it was hard to narrow it down. 

Covenant House serves 56,000 homeless, runaway, and trafficked kids each year. Many come to us after aging out of foster care, or getting kicked out of their house for being gay, or being prostituted. We see many young parents, many whose family lives disintegrated around them, and we wanted to include those specific kinds of youth homelessness in the book.

 

In researching and writing the book, what did you learn that surprised you?

I was amazed at how regular the young people we profiled were, in person. They were so easy to talk to, even about horrific events from their past. 

Anybody folding your jeans at The Gap or serving you fast food could be homeless, and you'd never know it. Almost 2 million young people in the US face an episode of homelessness each year, but you can go days without realizing you've seen a homeless kid.

I also learned that kids who've come from the most abusive or neglectful homes still crave those homes, and fight hard to get back to them. 

I was also amazed that not one of the kids we profiled was on the streets because of circumstances they controlled. It's not like they were bad kids -- they had bad luck. Their parents died, or were mentally ill or addicted, or in jail, or various combinations of other factors. 

 

Can you mention one or two young people you profile who made a strong impression on you? Can you share any follow up to their stories?

The book features six kids, and they all blew me away with their courage and resilience. The young woman who got kicked out of her house for being gay, then sent half her paycheck home to her family, made me realize that some homeless kids are finer human beings than a big chunk of the rest of the world.

One of the kids now sits on the board of a charity, another just got married and is a full-time teacher and awesome coach, several are in college, and it is heartening to see their resilience.

 

What do you hope that readers will come away with?

Hope, and an urge to act. I think in the end, this is a hopeful book, even though the kids' lives started out very, very rough. 

The adults who help the kids in the book do so in large and small ways. Some go so far as to adopt three kids; others just stopped to talk to a girl at a WalMart parking lot and drove her to a shelter when she had nowhere to go -- it saved her life. The counselors put their hearts' blood into their work, and it pays off. Just saying "You are better than that" to one girl in the book, the trafficking victim, helped her turn her life around.

Homeless kids need to know that people care about them, and the book's last chapter is all about ways anyone can help, in big ways and small. The Newark Covenant House is just 20 minutes from Maplewood, and the volunteers who help out there make a huge difference in the kids' lives. I hope the book encourages readers to join in the effort to fight youth homelessness.

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