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Grand Rapids shelter helps one teen find escape

Looking back, Da'Vionte Shannon recalled a time when each day seemed like a tightrope walk.

At age 17, about a year ago, he decided life at home was leading nowhere good. His three brothers were in jail. His mother lost their apartment in Grand Rapids when she couldn't make the rent. They moved in temporarily with a friend.

She got a new place, but then one of his brothers returned from jail. Without spelling it out, he said things were less than peaceful at home.

“I knew that I would have to get away from that environment. I had to find a different path,” he said.

So he left, splitting time at the home of his girlfriend and of his uncle.

“I was scared. It was like you had to have a plan for each day. What if I come home one day and they (the family of his girlfriend) kick me out and my uncle is out of town? It means you don't have anywhere to go.”

In October 2013, he entered a Grand Rapids shelter for homeless youth called The Bridge for two weeks, then again for two weeks last March. He stayed in transitional housing connected to the shelter for five months, then found an apartment of his own.

He application for emancipation was approved by Kent County Circuit Court in November 2013. That means he is free from control by his parents.

Young and alone

While homeless teens like Shannon are a subset of the overall population of homeless children in families, there are more than many realize. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates there are 380,000 U.S. homeless youth living apart from families at some time in a given year.

“They are hidden,” said Julie Cnossen, director of The Bridge.

“The majority of them are couch-surfing, night to night, staying with friends, trying to piece it together. Some of them turn to abandoned buildings, or encampments.

“The youth we see on the run are often running away from something. Often there is abuse. Most of them have a long history of trauma.”

Local officials estimate there are 200 runaway or unaccompanied teens in the Grand Rapids area on a given night and approximately 2,000 in the course of a year.

Numerous studies underline just how vulnerable these homeless teens can be. An estimated one third experience post traumatic stress disorder, and they also are at higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases. A 1999 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that 28 percent of homeless runaway teens reported they participated in “survival sex” - sex for money - and that they were at risk for suicide attempts, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

“Homelessness is a huge gateway into sexual trafficking,” Cnossen said.

One teen’s resolve

Da'Vionte Shannon might be fortunate to have escaped all that.

Now 18, he is living on his own and determined to make a good life for himself. He’s had plenty of experience, given what he went through in the past year and the fact he worked 20 to 30 hours a week through much of high school. He tried to contribute at least $50 a week to the family household during that time.

Sitting at the dining room table in his sparse apartment, Shannon said he harbors no bitterness toward his mother.

“She did the best she could,” he said.

He graduated from Union High School in Grand Rapids in June 2013 and plans to enroll in January at Grand Rapids Community College. He pays the rent through a job as a caretaker at an area nursing home.

And he's already singled out a career goal: occupational therapist. He plans to complete his coursework at GRCC, then aim for a master's degree from Grand Valley State University.

“I am the kind of person that needs a plan, so that's what I am going to study. It fits with my interests,” he said.

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