Abusive Childhood, Then Foster Care Led to Homelessness

LGBTQ: Man in plaid flannel shirt, scarf looks to right holding on to tree.

Michael Tashji

Matthew “Fire” Mishefski now lives in Union Square Park, after spending years in the foster care system.

Matthew “Fire” Mishefski’s experience with homelessness is the last of three stories on LGBTQ homeless youth as reported by the JJIE’s New York City Bureau. He uses the pronouns he/him.

NEW YORK — Matthew “Fire” Mishefski was days away from completing his makeshift encampment. After years of homelessness, the 24-year-old knew what he needed to successfully make it on the streets. It consisted of a bike, trailer, hammock, cooler, electric stove, solar panel — he was fully equipped to survive frigid Northeastern temperatures. 

“I stopped begging because I didn’t need to anymore,” Mishefski said. “I was working. I was a carpenter. Jesus was a carpenter. He built houses. He advocated for the poor. That’s what I’ve started to do.”

But on Jan. 4, 2019, officers from the New York Police Department’s 13th precinct approached Mishefski in Manhattan’s Union Square Park and sent him to Beth Israel hospital — stating that he was a harm to himself or to others.

Because it wasn’t an arrest, the officers didn’t run his name through their system. If they had, they would have been required to process his possessions. Instead, they threw them all out, including his carpentry tools, citing bedbugs. 

New York BureauMishefski was released from the hospital a few hours later. He went to the precinct to retrieve his belongings. When they told him it had been thrown out, he suffered a mental and physical breakdown — crying, coughing and spitting at the officers. 

Mishefski and other queer youth who live on the streets are routinely misserved by the systems ostensibly designed to address their needs. Their modes of survival are often criminalized — resulting in an overrepresentation of queer homeless youth in the criminal justice system. 

The LGBTQ community’s rate of interaction with police is significantly higher than that of the straight and cisgender population. According to a 2011 report by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, queer youth and young adults were 53% more likely to be stopped by the police, 60% more likely to be arrested as minors and 90% more likely to have had a juvenile conviction. 

After years of trauma at home, in foster care shelters and run-ins with the police on the streets, Mishefski had nowhere to turn but inward. Like other queer kids with similar challenges, his solution was to become self-sufficient. And after the NYPD tossed his stuff, even that failed. 

A broken home

Mishefski had a stable childhood living with his parents and sister outside Wilkes-Barre, Pa. When he was 7, his parents divorced. His mother stopped letting his father visit them, which broke down the father-son relationship. 

They moved in with Mishefski’s grandmother, who had a positive influence on his upbringing. “My grandma was the only person in my whole family to believe in the man I can be,” he said. 

LGBTQ: Man wearing backpack stands facing away outside.

Photo by Niamh McDonnell

Matthew “Fire” Mishefski’s backpack contains most of his worldly possessions.

But that influence was short-lived. 

Mishefski’s mother decided she wanted to move out. Two years later, she had gastric bypass surgery, the aftermath of which brought her a lot of pain. She developed an addiction to the pills doctors had prescribed. 

The surgery left her unable to work, and she became eligible for Social Security disability. She discovered she could earn additional money by declaring her son disabled as well. He was then able to receive Social Security benefits while undergoing pharmaceutical treatments.

Mishefski said his mother made him “a pharmaceutical guinea pig.” He was taking 2,000 milligrams of lithium a day. He was diagnosed with “bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, severe crippling anxiety — a large part of it was literally side effects of the medications.” 

The abusive upbringing Mishefski experienced is common among queer homeless youth. A 2012 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA found that 54% of LGBT youth who were either homeless or at risk of being homeless had a history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse at the hands of their families. 

The last time Mishefski talked to his mother, he was 15 and living in a psychiatric ward. When they spoke on the phone he could tell something was wrong. Two days later he found out she had fatally shot herself as she stood over his great-grandmother’s grave. 

Life in foster care

Mishefski left the institution and moved in with his father, the first of many times the two would try to live together. The house was in disrepair — whenever he stayed there he would help clean it up, but the living arrangement never worked out. “I love my dad, but he doesn’t take care of himself,” he said. 

He then moved in with his grandmother in Virginia, who was sick with cancer at the time. Her illness kept her from being able to take care of Mishefski, so she eventually gave up her custody rights and put him into foster care. The state of Virginia wouldn’t allow him to emancipate because of his history with prescription medications. 

Mishefski’s situation is typical nationally. Queer youth are more than seven times more likely to be placed in a group or foster home than straight youth, according to the Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law. Twenty-three percent of LGBQ children in the juvenile justice system had been previously placed in a group or foster home compared to only 3% of straight youth. 

Life in foster care wasn’t any easier for Mishefski. He recalled: “My foster parents don’t care about me. They kick me out from 9 to 5. They don’t feed me good. I’m not really a part of the family. So it wasn’t a good relationship.”

Mishefski’s experiences may have a long-lasting, potentially traumatic effect on his life, according to Dr. Violette Hong, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist in Berkeley, Calif. “Humans are hard-wired to want to be loved and accepted,” she said. “This need is especially strong during adolescence, when teens are trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be — they do so through the relationships they have.”

Rejection at a young age can drastically alter the mental health outcomes for LGBTQ youth. A recent survey done at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, referenced by the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, found that 10 out of 13 participants — mainly queer and trans women — suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, though only two had been diagnosed. 

Homeless in New York City

Mishefski eventually aged out of foster care and spent the next few years bouncing around between New York and San Francisco, living with his sister and various roommates. He also lived with a few “sugar daddies,” one of whom was a high-powered tech executive with a penthouse apartment. 

He did whatever he had to do to keep a roof over his head. Youth who have faced similar circumstances tend to do the same. A 2015 research report by The Urban Institute notes that in New York, the overwhelming majority of youth who engaged in survival sex had prior child welfare involvement — 75% had previously been placed in foster care. 

In May 2017, Mishefski decided to move back to New York and enter the city’s shelters. He would spend over a year in the system, watching his housemates snort coke, smoke crystal meth and shoot heroin. 

“The drug is the only good thing in their life,” he said. “That’s their release, that’s their escape from the life they’re given by the system.” The system “is the cause” of people’s suffering, he said. 

Mishefski felt unsafe as a gay man in the shelters, having almost been killed at one point. Once he decided to leave, “… I wasn’t going to settle for less. It was the single best decision I ever made.”

LGBTQ: Hands holding document.

Photo by Niamh McDonnell

The handwritten claim for destruction of property that Matthew “Fire” Mishefski plans to file with the New York Police Department.

In an attempt to tackle the dangerous situations Mishefksi and others find themselves in, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently unveiled the HOME-STAT initiative, an effort to divert the homeless into the city’s shelter system. The pilot program allows multiple city agencies to coordinate and provides new options for the homeless. Instead of receiving summonses, people who commit misdemeanors in the subways will now be offered access to supportive services. 

According to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the homeless outreach team will consist of licensed clinicians and psychiatrists offering first aid, substance abuse resources, medical and mental health referrals and blood pressure and diabetes screenings. The initiative has gained the support of major criminal justice reform organizations, including The Fortune Society and The Osborne Association

But Mishefski envisions an even bolder approach: a system where one individual gets back on their feet with the help of a mentor. That person then pays it forward to two more homeless people in a chain reaction. “Here’s a mentor, here’s an investor who’s willing to work with you in the field you decide on, and here’s the connection with the networks that will help lift you up,” he said.

Fighting for justice

Mishefski still lives in Union Square Park. He is suing the city for the destruction of his personal property at the hands of the NYPD. His 10-page claim, which he wrote by hand, seeks $1.4 million in damages. He said he could have a $15 million lawsuit if no settlement is reached.

“Justice comes from the things we do for each other to make the hell we live in better,” he said. “The system is built to keep people down.” 

His current plan is to launch a new initiative to fight homelessness in New York City. “The money I get is going to help lift people up, to give other homeless people the things they need,” he said. “I’m on the road to independence.”

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Youth Justice Program Grants

GRANT FOCUS: Youth Justice, Juvenile Justice, Youth Incarceration, Minority Youth
Amount: Unspecified
Deadline: Ongoing

“The Foundation’s Youth Justice Program supports groups working to advance a fair and effective community-based vision of youth justice, with a focus on ending the criminalization and incarceration of youth of color. In particular, the Program makes grants to groups working to:

  • Advance state policy reforms that dramatically restrict youth incarceration, abandon the prison model, and adopt community-based approaches for youth in the juvenile justice system;
  • End the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth in the adult criminal justice system; and
  • Support innovative strategies to counter structural racism in the juvenile justice system, with a particular focus on front-end reforms.

NOTE: The Public Welfare Foundation also offers grants in the areas of Criminal Justice and Worker’s Rights.

Funder: The Public Welfare Foundation
Eligibility: “The Foundation funds organizations that currently hold a 501(c)(3) status with the Internal Revenue Service working in the United States. Organizations that do not have this status can apply with a fiscal sponsor.”
Contact: Link. 


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Training Young People to Be Peer Leaders and Educators Is Powerful

peer leadership: Young people discussing paper sketch at brainstorming meeting behind glass of modern office interior.

GaudiLab/Shutterstock

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Youth engagement, youth leadership, youth participation, youth voice and choice, youth as leaders and decision-makers: These are ideas that are not new to the youth development and youth work field; and yet there are many challenges to engaging youth at meaningful levels. This challenge is a result of the longstanding norm that most of the information youth receive comes from adults. 

Peer education, or peer leadership, is a youth development strategy that incorporates powerful child-centered education models. This strategy involves youth in meaningful interactive, educational experiences focused on a public health issues like violence, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, or alcohol and other drugs. The peer leadership model provides information, builds skills and involves young people in positive group interactions as they are trained as peer leaders or educators. 

peer leadership: Laurie Jo Wallace (headshot), managing director of training at Health Resources in Action, smiling woman in pink sweater.

Laurie Jo Wallace

The strategy is built upon the belief that young people listen to and respect their peers in different ways than they do with adults. Peer leaders serve as positive role models providing accurate information and skill building for their peers or younger children. They are young people who have been empowered to use their voices to help other young people and to have a voice in creating change within themselves and within their communities.

Other educators have shown the power of learning from one’s own experience. The philosophy of Paolo Friere, Brazil’s eminent educator, focuses on the idea that teachers and students offer each other a “piece of the truth,” meaning that teachers and students learn from each other, and through each other’s perspectives. Present-day educator Carol Gilligan of Harvard University has studied the importance of being heard and the power of “voice,” especially for girls. 

The field of youth development and youth work today has begun to center around engaging young people and providing meaningful opportunities for them to participate in creating better schools, neighborhoods and communities. My own 40-year experience with young people has shown that they learn more authentically with their hearts and their heads if they have a voice in deciding what to learn and how to learn it. 

How to make peer leaders more effective

Peer leadership programs capitalize on the ability of young people to influence one another in positive ways and is a tried and true health promotion strategy. Health Resources in Action’s (HRiA) models of community-based peer education and youth/adult collaboration, developed and implemented over the past 25 years, bring new and innovative ideas to the youth development field. HRiA has pioneered the development of practical and effective peer leadership programs and has published three widely used related curricula: “Peer Leadership Preventing Violence,” “Peer Leadership Preventing HIV-AIDS” and “Peer Leadership Preventing Tobacco Use.”

In addition to educating their peers, peer leaders take the form of advocates, event planners, campaigners and spokespeople. To be effective, peer leaders are diverse and representative of a cross-section of young people who bring different skills, talents and levels of healthy behavior. A peer leadership model can be implemented with elementary-, middle- and high school-aged students. 

Peer-to-peer education can occur across levels. The LEAH project at Health Resources in Action trains students of color in high school to become mentors and teach inquiry-based science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum to elementary school students, create strong relationship between students of all ages and increase students’ exposure to STEM education. This model is mutually beneficial for younger children and the high school-aged mentors, who benefit from having meaningful employment and developing leadership skills. 

Considering equity when developing a peer leadership program is also essential to a successful model. While peer leadership programs can be used as volunteer and leadership opportunities for youth, paying youth is one way to ensure peer leaders remain engaged, their time is respected and they are compensated for the important work they are doing to improve their communities, particularly youth from marginalized communities. 

Many young people face financial burdens at home and are forced to choose between having a part-time job after school and being involved in community or leadership work. Paying youth ensures that youth from all financial backgrounds are able to participate and feel valued for their work. 

Youth must help plan for youth leadership

The critical foundations of a successful peer leadership program start with vision and planning, and, at its center, including youth input in the planning process. Training for peer leaders should be robust and focus not only on developing youth as experts on the topic, but modeling evidence-based facilitation techniques. Bonnie Bernard, a public health researcher and practitioner, has written several articles concerning peer education models and positive youth development in general. She states that one of the most important components is the adult involved in the program. 

She writes, “The type of peer program is far less important than the attitude and style of the adults involved … the attitude of the adult, then, must be one of acceptance and comfort of youth … and the style of the adult should be facilitating and guiding — not controlling.” The National Association of Peer Program Professionals has additionally supported peer programs and adult advisors of peer programs for more than 30 years. It has developed a variety of resources and tools to support the development and evaluation of both school-based and community-based programs. 

Peer leadership is an adaptable, comprehensive model for a variety of topics from public health and STEM to social justice and more. However, the core of any peer program is the focus on young people as leaders, as they grow and develop new skills. One peer leader from the LEAH Project, a 10th grader named Andrianne, sums it up like this: 

“The LEAH Project has given me the opportunity to grow as a person. I have come to understand the importance of youth voice and how I have the ability to influence the lives of others. I have gained new friends, leadership skills, and wonderful experiences with the kids I work with.” 

Young people have the potential to create meaningful change at the individual, interpersonal and community level through this peer leadership model. As youth work professionals, it is our job to make sure we are uplifting youth voice and leadership wherever possible. 

Laurie Jo Wallace has spent the last 30 years at Health Resources in Action promoting healthy communities and healthy youth in Boston. In her role as the managing director of training and capacity building, she has special expertise in the areas of training and facilitation, and she has provided consulting and support to numerous youth programs, coalitions and public health and other nonprofit agencies in the Boston region, Massachusetts and nationally.

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FDI Portfolio – August 19: Adding Hanesbrands (HBI)

Hanesbrands produced $5.99 per share in free cash flow over the past 12 months, covering ten times over annual dividends of $0.60 share. The stock trades at major discounts to five-year average valuations and wouldbe $22 per share if it were to reattain its average year-ahead P/E ratio of 12.7.

Afterschool Youth Sports Program Grants

GRANT FOCUS: Child/Youth Development, Youth Sports, Education, Physical Activity, Health
Amount: Unspecified
Deadline:
Varies. See contact link for more info.

“Our mission is to provide after-school opportunities for middle-school aged children in the community to become involved in athletics, so that they may learn the character traits of accountability, teamwork, leadership, work ethic, and perseverance while in a safe and supervised environment with their peers.

Does your school have:

  • A planned/established after school sports program in the U.S., meeting between 3:00-5:30, for kids in 6th – 8th grades?
  • Over 60% of students eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch program?
  • Outdated, worn out uniforms and vital equipment that need to be replaced and will be reused year after year?
  • A secure place to store uniforms and equipment?
  • Staff, transportation, and space for the after school program?”

Funder: The Justin J. Watt Foundation
Eligibility: Schools.
Contact: Link. 


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Energy/Environmental Youth Education and Community Development Program Grants

GRANT FOCUS: Education, STEM, Youth Development, Environmental Education, Community Development
Amount: Up to $500 | Up to $25,000 or $50,000
Deadline: Sept. 15, 2019 | Oct. 1, 2019

“Through the E2 Energy to EducateSM (E2EE) grant program, Constellation offers students in grades 6-12 and college opportunities to experience problem-solving today’s and tomorrow’s energy challenges. Grant funds support projects designed to enhance students’ understanding of science and technology, and inspire them to think differently about energy.  Constellation is seeking proposals for hands on projects which engage 100 or more students, within the follow themes: Smart Home, Electrification, Clean Energy & Zero Waste.

Through Constellation’s Community Champions (CC) program, our customers can apply for small grants (up to $500) from Constellation for causes that are important to their community. Preferred consideration will be given to those requests where the project, organization, or initiative focuses on education, environment, or youth.”

Funder: Constellation
Eligibility: E2EE – Schools, school districts, or 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
CC – 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations or communities.
Amount: E2EE: Up to $25,000 or $50,000
CC: Up to $500
Contact: E2EE – Link.
CC – Link.


>>> CLICK HERE to see all of Youth Today’s GRANT LISTINGS

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