ELIZABETH, NJ - The COVID-19 pandemic is straining resources for programs serving runaway and homeless youth that were already in short supply prior to the crisis. The primary causes of homelessness among youth are family conflict or severe economic hardship, making these programs more critical than ever to ensure young people who need aid do not slip through the cracks.

Youth programs at Community Access Unlimited transform lives and are comprehensive to meet individual needs. From emergency housing to semi-independent and supported housing, CAU ensures that members have a safe home as well as training and education to prepare them for a stable, self-reliant adulthood. Services also include crisis intervention, counseling, recreation services, and leadership and advocacy opportunities.

Natalie, 18, is one Community Access Unlimited Transitional Opportunities Program member who is celebrating her accomplishments this year. A 2020 graduate of Essex Valley School, Natalie is class president and salutatorian, and was excited to deliver her speech in an in-person graduation ceremony on Thursday. 

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“Coming from a challenging environment and not having a typical support system was a struggle,” Natalie told her classmates. “To start high school and fail all your classes and then to graduate with a 3.6 GPA and be a member of the National Honor Society and be salutatorian is a tremendous accomplishment because I myself had doubts about my own success.”

Natalie will attend Union County College in the fall and plans to major in education to pursue her goals of teaching math to children in a juvenile correctional facility. 

“I’ve been there and I want to make a change, I want to help another kid out,” Natalie said.  “I want to set up my own program where I try to get kids off the streets and put them in their books. I want to help them focus in school and be ready.”

“[My staff] have seen my growth and how difficult it was,” she added. “They kept trying to lead me in the right direction. They were guiding me in telling me what the real world is out there. They also taught me about credit and budgeting.”

Homeless youth face particular risks during this time. An average of 25 percent of youth accessing runaway and homeless youth programs have a chronic or pre-existing health condition like diabetes, asthma or HIV, according to a recent survey of programs coordinated by the Coalition for Homeless Youth. Youth living on the streets are also at high risk for victimization and assault, mental illness, substance misuse, juvenile justice system involvement, and human trafficking, all of which increases the  likelihood of perpetuated homelessness in adult life.

CAU youth programs include the Transitional Opportunities Program (TOP) which provides comprehensive residential services to youth ages 13 to 21, as well as the Union County Youth Shelter and federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Basic Center Program and federal Transitional Living Programs.  These programs provide safe shelter and supportive services that address the experiences and needs of these youth to mitigate their risks and put them on a better life outcomes trajectory.

Youth enrolled in the TOP day program participate in an employment training workshop, a GED program, or volunteer job practicum for a minimum of 30 hours per week. TOP members may receive 24-hour supervised residential living, community services, daily living skills training, case management, advocacy and outreach, education in accordance with the NJ Approved Life Skills Curriculum, and drug and alcohol awareness education.

Eligible youth can become a Community Access Unlimited TOP member by referral through the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, Children’s System of Care, referral by local schools, community organizations or local agencies, faith-based organizations, hospitals and medical offices, self-referral, or by anyone encountering a youth seeking shelter or assistance.