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From couch surfing to sleeping in a car: What one teen’s story tells us about homelessness in rural Texas

By Jess Huff, The Texas Tribune

From couch surfing to sleeping in a car: What one teen’s story tells us about homelessness in rural Texas” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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LUFKIN — Georgia DeVries misses sleeping in a car.

“It was safer than any house I’ve been in,” the 17-year-old said.

By her count, she’s lived in at least 13 different places since the sixth grade, including multiple homes with her mom, extended stays with friends and family, and four trips to behavioral health clinics.

Then last November, after staying with her aunt, she ended up in her now ex-boyfriend’s broken-down Mitsubishi parked on his family’s property.

It wasn’t much, but she felt at peace — most of the time.

This is how many teenagers in rural Texas experience homelessness: a revolving door of sheltered and unsheltered living, friends’ couches, stints with extended family, nights spent outdoors. Homeless shelters are not an option in Lufkin, a town of 34,000, 90 miles south of Tyler, the nearest major city. Shelters here don’t take unaccompanied minors without reports of violent abuse.

A dearth of shelters is just one way homeless teens in rural areas are at a more significant disadvantage than their urban peers, experts say. A lack of good-paying jobs, poverty and drug abuse can be more common.

Poverty rose in 30% of Texas counties between 2018 and 2022; a majority of those counties are considered rural. East Texas had a higher rate of opioid abuse than the rest of the state, according to a regional needs assessment based on data from 2018 to 2020. Texas, as a whole, was one of eight states where rural communities suffered higher drug overdose rates compared to their urban counterparts, according to a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

And teens in rural areas are harder to track, making it more difficult for policymakers to design solutions based on quality data.

More than 650,000 U.S. residents in 2023 were counted as homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s a dramatic surge from 2022. The statistic is based on an annual census of homeless people on a single night in January.

Rural and nonrural communities have similar rates of youth homelessness, according to a 2021 study by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, a think tank focused on public policy that supports families.

But these annual counts — which Chapin Hall’s research is based on — face criticism across the board as they struggle to measure homelessness accurately, even in urban areas.

Erin Carreon, a researcher at the University of Chicago, said there is likely a significant undercount in rural areas. That’s because rural teens are often “hidden” from counters.

Georgia, for example, was with her then-girlfriend during the 2023 count, escaping the census.

“When we think of homelessness, we might think of people in shelters or we might think of people on a busy street corner that people are walking by,” Carreon said. “In a rural area, young people are more likely to stay on couches, inside vehicles if they are outdoors, and it might be in a more secluded and hidden spot.”

Six years ago, Georgia was living with her grandma and legal guardian, Jan DeVries. That’s when Georgia’s mother asked her to move to Beaumont, a much larger city about 100 miles southeast of Lufkin.

Georgia said she was excited. But after just one week at the new home, she clearly made a mistake. She left to move in with her girlfriend in Lufkin and stayed for two years.

A lack of early, stable relationships and a stubborn independence streak led Georgia to move in and out of homes frequently, DeVries said. In the years following the breakup, Georgia would stay with friends and family, sometimes lasting just one night.

Georgia acknowledges she has played a significant role in contributing to her homelessness. Her mental health is not the best, she said. She is seeking help and meets with a therapist weekly.

While DeVries has been one of the most stable forces in Georgia’s life, they’ve had their own falling out over Georgia’s sexual identity.

DeVries said she tried not to judge Georgia, who first came out as a lesbian when she was about 14 and then bisexual when she was older.

“I just didn’t like the fact that she was going to make her life that much more difficult for herself,” DeVries said.

LGBTQ+ youths were twice as likely to experience homelessness as their peers, according to another study by Chapin Hall.

Georgia loved the company of little stray black cats that roamed the area near the broken-down car she called home last November. A stray dog would wander by occasionally, too, she said.

She is stick-thin. And she rocks a short, modern-day punk haircut dyed a mix of red, blue and green. Tattoos she did herself using a gun purchased online cover her body.

Like any teenager, she can be talkative at points or sit pensively, staring into space.

“I could have stayed there forever,” she said.

However, the freedom she felt came with some consequences. It was November, and the East Texas region was experiencing its first cold front. She posted videos on TikTok of her breaking down, crying about how lonely she was.

Her feet hurt from the cold. And once, she slept for nearly 48 hours straight fighting a urinary tract infection. A cousin later dragged her to the doctor’s office for help.

Georgia DeVries, 17, at a Lufkin-area park on Jan. 18, 2024.
In her experience with homelessness, Georgia DeVries, 17, stayed with friends and family, sometimes lasting just one night, and in a broken-down car. Credit: Leslie Nemec for The Texas Tribune

“There wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it,” DeVries said. “You pray real hard: ‘Protect her. Protect her. Protect her.’ Because she was out there and you can’t make her understand about the danger she’s putting herself in. It was misery.”

There wasn’t anywhere else for the teen to go in Angelina County. Local shelters only accept people over 18 unless violent abuse is reported.

Service providers don’t have an incentive to seek out these teens, because they have nothing to offer them. And public schools are supposed to act as a safety net, but students rarely know that, said Carreon, the University of Chicago researcher.

The Lufkin school district has a social worker. However, there’s little help for the kids who drop out of school. And Georgia doesn’t remember the last time she was in a classroom.

Two adults who have tried to help Georgia are Pam and Yvonne Smith. They started the Kaleidoscope L.Y.F.E. Foundation to provide access to mentorship for at-risk youth.

Before launching the nonprofit, Pam Smith worked in the juvenile justice system and Yvonne worked at another youth advocacy center. For years, they watched the state and local foster care system struggle. Statewide, the system that is supposed to help young Texans find stable homes has faced scrutiny for staff turnover, dangerous home placements and placing kids in hotels when foster homes were unavailable.

Local leaders and organizations, the Smiths say, have failed to close the gap.

“These kids are underage and can’t do anything for themselves,” Yvonne Smith said. “They’re stuck in a situation where they’re supposed to be an adult but are not legally able to act as one.”

They don’t receive support from the state, they can’t register themselves for school or GED programs, and they can’t sign a contract for an apartment or utilities, Yvonne Smith said.

Communities can begin to address homelessness by establishing strategies to divert teens from this path, according to Carreon. And she suggested that federal funding be made more broadly accessible to those communities.

Carreon thinks it really starts with schools, giving them the resources to identify these kids and provide them with help.

“Making sure schools have the capacity to fulfill their roles is really key,” she said.

Until that happens, rural teen homelessness will likely remain invisible and abstract.

Georgia had to move out of the car after it was vandalized.

And DeVries insisted Georgia return home before Christmas. She waits up each night for Georgia, who walks home from her job at Little Caesars. Georgia likes the work because she can munch on pizza during her breaks.

She puts aside as much money as she can for a car.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/05/rural-texas-teen-homelessness/.

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