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  • Writer's pictureLiam Koch

The Phoenix House and Helping to Fill in Gaps in Services for At-Risk Youths


In 2013, I’d just graduated from KU and was excited to start my first job in social welfare. I was so passionate about finally getting to help people. The words you’re hired nearly brought me to tears. It was a childcare position at a local foster care group home. The job came with challenges, joy, hope, and conflict. It was a lot, but I could make a difference in someone’s life. It was everything I wanted it to be—until it wasn’t.

Early on in my career, I was naïve. I thought that if I did enough, I could fix things. I learned the hard way that things don’t always work out the way they could or should.

I worked with a girl we’ll call Abby. She was nearly eighteen with black hair, pale skin, and an impeccable fashion sense, and she absolutely hated me. She mocked everything about me. She always commented about my looks, clothes, cooking, and job. She’d had such a difficult life even then. So the usual anger, ignorance, and difficulties growing up were more intense for her. She made my job hard, much more than needed, but I don’t remember her for the mean things she said. No, when I remember Abby, I think about the look on her face the day she left.

Abby had it all planned out. She’d met with the judge, written her release letter, and sorted everything out to exit foster care on her eighteenth birthday. Her sister would pick her up and whisk her away to a better life. She’d be out of the system. She’d be back with her family. Her future was looking up, and she was so excited.

But her sister never showed up.

I remember Abby sitting on the couch by the window, constantly looking out to check for her sister. The longer she waited, the most upset she became. Her confusion turned to concern, then anxiety, then frustration. She lashed out at the other kids, fidgeted in her seat, and kept glancing out the window. Where was her sister? Where was her ride to a better future?

The staff was concerned and upset for her. Who leaves a kid like that after confirming all their plans? We waited hours until I gave in and called my supervisor to ask what to do. The answer still stops me cold to this day. It hurts to think about it. It was harsh, and I can only imagine how it affected Abby’s life. My supervisor said, “She can’t stay. If her sister doesn’t show, you’ll have to drop her off at the homeless shelter.”

Drop her off. Just like that?

I was numb and confused. There was nothing I could do for Abby. I was as helpless as she was. I saw then the cracks in the system and how broken it really is. I’ll never get that image of Abby out of my mind—her sitting on the couch, glancing out the window, confusion and fear on her face. She was alone, helpless, and despite being the adult charged with protecting the children, I couldn’t do a single thing about it.

No one should have to go through that. It’s a terrible situation to be in. You’re alone, vulnerable, and powerless, hoping that someone saves you. And it happens more than we want to admit. A foster child aging out of the system, a gay kid who gets kicked out for being themselves, and young ones pulled into human trafficking are all examples of situations that have happened many times and will continue to happen. Innumerable youth need help.

It’s taken years to get where I am, but I’m no longer helpless in the fight to protect these kids. I can’t help everyone, but now I can make a positive difference in the lives of kids transitioning into adulthood.

Have you heard of the Phoenix House? It’s a new collaborative project between the Willow Domestic Violence Center and Tenants to Homeowners, and I’m the house manager.

The Phoenix House is a transitional living program for youth ages 18 to 24 who are homeless, former foster youth, or LGBTQIA+. We currently can house up to three youths at a time. Our program teaches valuable life skills to build independence as these young folks transition into adulthood. We want these kids to avoid those terrible situations and a future of homelessness.

The program is well-rounded, trying to assist youths through this transitional period without leaving anything out. We focus on independent living skills, financial literacy, and household management. But we also put equal importance on emotional and physical well-being, guiding young folks to learn how to manage these as well. Our number one goal is to see our youths successfully move into their own place under their own power, with the ability to maintain it long-term.

I’ve got some numbers for you: 30,090. 550,000. 18. 24. 91. 43.

These are statistics for youth homelessness from the National Alliance to End homelessness. 30,090 unaccompanied youth were counted as homeless. 91% were between the ages of 18 to 24. It’s estimated that 550,000 youths in this age range have experienced homelessness for longer than a week. Over half are under 18.

I refuse to ignore these numbers. I’m no longer a 21-year-old unable to help someone like Abby walk into that homeless shelter. Now I can make an impact on these statistics, however small. And I want to encourage you—yeah, you, the person reading this—to share information about the Phoenix House with everyone you know. We’re a new program, so there are people out there who don’t know about this new resource. Young folks and their providers (if there are any) can’t access support if they don’t know it’s available.

As for me, I’d love to talk with you about our program. Feel free to contact me at lkoch@willowdvcenter.org with any questions you may have about the Phoenix House. I can give you further information, and maybe together, we can change someone’s life.


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