Pushed out by his father, Alex Taylor packed his bags and made the 1,400-mile trip from their place in Palm Bay, Fla., to his mother’s home in Everett, hoping to find stability and the support of a family.
He did not. Taylor and his mother, whom he had not seen since birth, began arguing, and before long, he was sleeping on cold park benches and couch-surfing. Sometimes, his mother would relent and let him back into her apartment, only to kick him out again. He was never sure when and where he would get a meal.
“I was floating,” Taylor, now 20, said. “I wasn’t really on track.”
But on Tuesday, Taylor and 22 other homeless youths were honored during a ceremony at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, because they have managed to graduate from high school despite lacking a permanent home and parental guidance.
The students are part of YouthHarbors, a privately funded program started five years ago to help homeless teens and young adults finish high school and go on to lead successful lives, said program founder Danielle Ferrier.
YouthHarbors works through four high schools in the Boston area to provide these students with stable housing, jobs, and life-skills training. They learn, for example, how to open a bank account, pay bills, and go grocery shopping.
“It’s critical that they graduate high school to truly have a chance to progress as adults,” Ferrier said. “Otherwise, they fall through the cracks.”
At Tuesday’s event, YouthHarbors administrators and case managers honored the students in front of an intimate audience of about 30 people, mostly staff from the program and the schools it serves. The absence of parents was apparent.
Nelson Noelsainte, 19, a graduate of Everett High School, smiled as he posed for pictures with the certificate he received from the program, despite the turmoil that engulfed his life just months ago. In March, his father kicked him out of their home in Everett after Noelsainte had several heated arguments with his stepmother. The teen lived with friends for a few days until Everett High administrators referred him to Sam Margolius, the school’s resident YouthHarbors caseworker.
“There were a lot of things going through my mind,” Noelsainte said. “I had to get more responsible.”
Margolius helped Noelsainte find his own apartment in Everett, paid for by YouthHarbors, as well as a job at a pizzeria. The teen said he plans to study at Bunker Hill Community College and hopes one day to become a pediatric psychiatrist, because, he said, he likes “talking to people, especially to kids.”
YouthHarbors participants come from a variety of backgrounds. At Malden High School, they are mostly immigrants, predominantly from Haiti, China, or Central America. At Boston Day and Evening Academy in Roxbury, participants tend to be from the city. Some struggle with mental health issues, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which means caseworkers have to take extra steps to make graduation a reality.
For immigrant youths, home stability can be especially precarious, said Malden High’s principal, Dana Brown.
He has had immigrant students who are left to fend for themselves after their sole parent dies, gets sick, or moves away. Sometimes, the students struggle with learning gaps that are the legacy of moving from other countries or having inconsistent schooling.
But YouthHarbors addresses many of those needs at Malden, the first school to host the program, the principal said.
“It’s turned out to be a godsend for many of our students,” Brown said. “Many of them have been literally saved.”
To hear 21-year-old Anthony Rodrigues tell it, the program was the difference between life and death.
Rodrigues went to a local adult shelter after being forced to leave the home he shared with his mother and kid brother after frequent arguments. He dropped out of school his senior year because he was embarrassed by his living situation and did not want schoolmates to know.
Feeling depressed, Rodrigues decided to leave the shelter after four days because he could not stand the drug addicts who roamed its halls and the unsanitary conditions — a shower was hard to come by. He took to sleeping at the houses of friends and acquaintances, but after six months, he took a teacher’s advice and went back to school to join YouthHarbors.
In the fall, the Boston Day and Evening Academy graduate plans to go to Bunker Hill, to study to become an X-ray technician.
At Tuesday’s ceremony, Rodrigues’s caseworker cried as she stood at the lectern and told his story. She took a moment to compose herself while another caseworker, Margolius, went up to talk about Taylor, Noelsainte, and his other students. A few minutes later, it was Rodrigues’s turn. The keynote student speaker walked up and surveyed the room, smiling bashfully. “I couldn’t be more thankful,” he said. “You guys helped me out. I really appreciate it. Big time.”