Our local youth are at the very core of all we do, of how and why we make decisions, and why we give back and serve.
Yet, there is a population of children among us that we do not speak nearly enough about. We notice them, but we do not see them. We hear them, but we are still not listening.
Thankfully, Vicki Sokolik helps us know them through her local nonprofit organization and her newly published book, “IF YOU SEE THEM: Young, Unhoused, and Alone in America” (available wherever books are sold, with signed copies at Oxford Exchange and Tombolo Books.
Vicki Sokolik: Today, Starting Right, Now is an unstoppable force protecting youth experiencing homelessness alone. We’re in two counties in Florida, have participated in legislation reform and have supported hundreds of unaccompanied homeless youth.
But truthfully when it was first created, I was not thinking about a “movement.” I was home—in my neighborhood, at my kitchen table—aware of a problem that I encountered while delivering gifts to homeless families during the holidays.
During one of my deliveries, I met a single mother who had a long-term salaried job but was stuck living in a motel room with her two young boys. I became more involved and began to better understand the varied circumstances that keep people impoverished. In her case, she couldn’t afford the large upfront deposit and first-month’s rent to secure an apartment.
She compelled me to help other people overcome obstacles which prevent them from staying stably housed. I continued doing this work, and little by little Starting Right, Now was formed and grew to its current state. It was created because I started where I was. I did what I could with what I had. Big impact starts with small steps.
Starting Right, Now serves a very specific population that are the faces of an invisible epidemic spreading across our own community and this country. Can you explain who these children are?
Vicki Sokolik: Starting Right, Now serves unaccompanied homeless youth, youth who are not living with a parent or guardian and who are not in the foster-care system. They decide to leave home to flee from abuse and unlivable conditions. Because they are not forcibly removed by the Department of Children and Families, they are not considered for foster care.
These are teens that couch hop between friends, sleep at the bus stop or at the park, hide away in school locker rooms or gyms, or too frequently exchange sexual acts with strangers for places to stay. My nonprofit, Starting Right, Now, provides necessary resources and holistic programming to help unaccompanied homeless youth grow into healthy and self-sufficient, instead of chronically homeless, adults.
The mission of Starting Right, Now has been widely embraced. You have made a tremendous impact in Tampa Bay and at the state legislative level since its founding in 2008. Please share some of the highlights.
Vicki Sokolik: In addition to helping hundreds of unaccompanied homeless youth graduate high school and mature into young adults with careers, families and confidence, we have co-authored/amended 10 laws in Florida to protect this population statewide.
In 2010, I had a student who was denied access to employment, medical care, post-secondary education and banking because he did not have a certified social security card or birth certificate. He was alone, not living with parents, and had no access to his own identification documents.
Coincidentally, through a district-wide program offering the opportunity to propose new state legislation, we were connected to a senior legislative analyst at the Florida Senate. We proposed a bill that granted unaccompanied homeless youth the right to obtain their birth certificate, social security card, and state ID without parental consent. Now enacted as a law, unaccompanied youth in Florida are not dead-ended—denied access to essential resources and opportunities—because of a lack of access to identification.
Because of our continued work in challenging barriers experienced by our kids, unaccompanied youth now have the right to a 14-day expedited emancipation trial without fees. They are now eligible for Medicaid and food stamps. They can consent for their own healthcare, including mental health and consent for their own substance abuse evaluation and treatment.
Homeless higher education tuition waivers are now accepted at all state vocational schools and state colleges and unaccompanied youth now qualify for “Keys to Independence,” a program that eases the process of becoming a licensed driver, formally limited to foster care youth. School districts must provide identification cards proving student’s status and rights as an unaccompanied youth, and state colleges must have a homeless liaison and food bank.
We are currently proposing amended laws allowing unaccompanied youth enrolled in post-secondary education to obtain food stamps, receive Medicaid extensions to age 26 and be eligible for HUD housing vouchers. We are working on persuading a congressperson to sponsor this bill.
You have an incredible gift of crafting a story. What is the purpose and message behind your debut title, launching this month?
Vicki Sokolik: “IF YOU SEE THEM: Young, Unhoused, and Alone in America” presents the stories of several unaccompanied homeless youth who have participated in Starting Right, Now, their heart-wrenching stories of becoming unhoused and alone, and how they overcame their situations with the right resources and opportunities.
Their experiences serve as examples to demystify the ways in which we generally condemn and discredit homeless people (saying they are “lazy,” “criminals,” or “incompetent”). They illuminate that whatever you may believe about homelessness people and their own culpability, homeless youth are never given a decent chance in the first place. With the right intervention—essential resources, holistic programming, protective legislation—unaccompanied homeless youth become purposeful, contributing community members.
We prove this every day in Starting Right, Now. Many alumni from our program are now working as educators, social workers, nurses, doctors, therapists, EMTs, paramedics, welders, firefighters. Every child has that potential. I hope communities will reach out to replicate what we have in Tampa Bay and provide real opportunity to as many youth as possible.
In what ways do you think our community, the justice system and schools can adapt to consider the unique context of our homeless unaccompanied youth?
Vicki Sokolik: Following your moral compass is hard when you are struggling to survive. I think we could all do better by understanding the circumstances that constrain the decisions of people experiencing poverty.
For example, before participating in Starting Right, Now, one of my students was charged by a big box retailer for stealing feminine hygiene products. A minor, without transportation or identification, cannot easily get a job to afford essential goods.
At school, excessive absences, poor hygiene, missing assignments, anger, exhaustion or indifference can possibly indicate that a student is experiencing instability outside of school. Instead of disciplinary or punitive reactions, we can be attuned to these signs to identify students in need and connect them to the proper resources.
When you aren’t testifying at Florida Congress, being recognized multiple times as a local hero or writing 336 pages of a book – what do you enjoy doing with your family in Tampa Bay?
Vicki Sokolik: I spend a lot of my time attending to my large, unconventional Starting Right, Now family. I attended two different weddings of SRN alumni this year. And just yesterday, an alumnus I have known for more than a decade came over and dropped off her 2-year-old. We watched her for a couple hours while her mom ran some errands. My dogs love to follow her as she toddles around my home. When I’m not occupied in this way, I exercise, meditate and read to keep my sanity.
Originally published in the February 2024 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.
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