Finding Home: Teens Transitioning from Homeless to Independent Living

Home: Teens Transitioning from Homeless to Independent Living

By Sonja Whitemon

While many young people are thinking about sports, proms and graduating, some can only think of where they will sleep at night. There are so many teens who have nowhere to go, they are living out of cars, living on the streets and couch surfing. These teenagers are homeless, and they are vulnerable to some of the worst elements of life.

Sometimes teens are homeless by choice, escaping abuse or family conflicts and sometimes through no fault of their own. According to Covenant House, each year, an estimated 4.2 million young people in the United States experience a form of homelessness. Family experiences like child abuse and/or neglect, domestic violence, parental substance use or abandonment can lead a teen to become homeless.

Zion Newton was being raised by his grandmother until she was diagnosed with dementia and could no longer care for him. He moved in with a pastor and his wife until a death in their family caused them to need the room he was using. Zion Newton was declared homeless by his school system.  

“It made me feel like abandoned in a sense, like — not that she abandoned me —  but it made me feel like I wish it wasn’t me,” said Newton. “Sometimes, I didn’t worry about it, but sometimes I was upset, like a lot, really upset because it was too much for somebody who is 17 to handle. I always felt like when you’re 17, you shouldn’t have to worry about where you’re gonna live, where you’re gonna stay.”

He remembers what it felt like to be without a home. “So, I really had no idea like what to do. I was really scared actually because of the simple fact that I really had no idea where I was going to go … what I was going to do. I really had no idea how I was gonna go to college if I wanted to,” he said.

His first thought was the military because the military would provide housing. Ultimately, after graduating from Harding University High School in 2023, Donna Reed, founder of Home4me stepped in and helped him get into dormitory living at Livingstone College in Salisbury. Today, Newton is living year-round at the college with a major in business administration and a minor in religious studies.

There are so many more Zions who have nowhere to go and don’t know what to do. Foster care exists to prevent children from being without homes. It is estimated that more than 5,000 children a year enter fostercare in North Carolina. For some teens, it could be an option, but the maximum age of eligibility is 17. And those who are already in foster care on their eighteenth birthday, and have not made arrangements to live with parents, relatives or legal guardians are emancipated, which is commonly known as aged out of foster care. Without adequate support, life after foster care for those who age out can be traumatic.

Donna Reed with Home4me said the excitement that comes with turning 18 for most is not necessarily the same for those in foster care. “There’s no excitement when you know that where you live, what’s coming in, what decisions are going to be made over your life — everything comes to an end,” she said. “And if you are in the middle of a school year and have not graduated yet and all of your resources come to an end and you have to figure out where you are going to go and what’s gonna happen to you. Imagine what that’s like.”

And Reed has imagined. She had the experience of aging out of foster care. Her organization, Home4me, wants every teen aging out of foster care to have the same options as youth with parents. And this includes the opportunity to receive their choice of education with paid tuition. For those who are college-bound, the organization has a relationship with Livingstone College that helps [them] attend college and live on campus year-round until graduation.”

There are also government programs available to those who age out of foster care:


Mecklenburg County also provides assistance with independent living through its LINKS project. LINKS provides services for youth in foster care who are between the ages of 13-21.  LINKS was developed to help teach life skills so that aging-out youth can be self-sufficient once they are out of the foster care system.

NC Reach

NC Reach is a post-secondary educational program for students who aged out of foster care. It is a state-funded scholarship offered to qualified applicants for up to four years of undergraduate study at public universities and community colleges in North Carolina. 


Young adults ages 18-26 who aged out of foster care may be eligible for Medicaid and can apply for Medicaid coverage at the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services where they reside.

Specific subpopulations of youth and young adults face a higher risk for homelessness.

  • Black youth face an 83% increased risk than their white peers.
  • Hispanic youth face a 33% increased risk.
  • LGBTQ youth were more than twice as likely to have experienced homelessness.
  • Young parents—especially unmarried—had a three times higher risk than non-parenting peers.
  • Youth with experiences of foster care, juvenile detention, jail, or prison.
  • Youth who do not complete high school are 3.5 times more likely to experience homelessness than peers who completed a high school diploma.