In the past year, Luke Kulberg, 19, has lived in six different apartments, houses, or homeless shelters in nearly as many towns — Emmett, Boise, Horseshoe Bend, Star, Eagle.
The odyssey began for the Eagle High School senior when he was 16 and moved with his parents from North Dakota to Montour, a small community in Gem County. He enrolled in Horseshoe Bend High School.
Kulberg’s parents had always dreamed about living a simple life in Idaho. But after Kulberg’s dad died, “My mom and I were having a lot of conflict. We weren’t clicking together,” he said. The relationship deteriorated over the next couple of years. Trouble came to a head when Kulberg was 18 and wrecked his mom’s car.
Vignettes from the year that followed: Kulberg leaves home, dropping out of school. Kulberg couch surfs with friends until their parents get tired of having him around. Kulberg’s mom packs a suitcase with a few of his things, intending to drop him at a homeless shelter; Kulberg walks out of a Carl’s Jr. with nothing that but that suitcase and the clothes on his back.
He made do by working construction jobs in Caldwell subdivisions for $8 an hour, and spent a few nights at the River of Life shelter in Boise before realizing the only way to make a stable life for himself was to go back to school. He then made a call to Eagle High to enroll.
His re-entry into a life more typical of someone in their teen years was rapid. He didn’t have transportation, so on his first morning of school, he rode his long board from the house where he was staying in Star to Eagle High. In the course of a day, he went from being a homeless adult working for just over minimum wage to being another student in the West Ada School District, expected to make it to his history class on time, just like everyone else. The school provided a bus ride home, breakfast, lunch, pencils, notebooks.
“I met with the social worker and she asked me what I needed. I couldn’t think of anything. It was good to just be in school,” said Kulberg.
1,090 number of homeless students in the West Ada and Boise School Districts
160 number of those students who are also unaccompanied
Kulberg became one of the district’s “unaccompanied youth,” a category for homeless children or young people who also are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian. Of the approximately 367 homeless students in the West Ada District, approximately 60 are identified as unaccompanied. The Boise School District has 723 homeless students. Of those, 103 are unaccompanied youth. State law allows students to attend public school until they are 21. Federal law designates such students as youth, even if they’re 18 or older.
In 2014, the West Ada district began a program, Housing + High School = Success, a grassroots nonprofit within the Education Foundation of West Ada. The program’s goal is to help unaccompanied students stay in school rather than drop out to work, said Jeanne Buschine, the district’s homeless grant liaison. The program provides a modest stipend of $100 a month for families willing to provide room, board and other support for unaccompanied students ages 18-21. Kulberg is one of seven students now benefiting from it.
The stipend is only paid after the district verifies the student’s school attendance and passing grades. Families in the program must undergo background checks.
H+H=S raised over $15,000 for stipends during the 2014-2015 school year through community donations, including a Legacy Grant from the Meridian Chamber of Commerce and donations from Dutch Brothers Coffee, Idaho Power and Select Health.
Pam Meza is a participant in the H+H=S program. She is providing a safe, healthy home for Kulberg while he works towards his high school diploma.
Meza is used to being around lots of kids. She has seven grandchildren and worked as the head cook at Eagle High for a decade. These days, she works as a cook at a local nursing home.
“I’m still cooking, but now it’s for the older ‘teenagers at the rest home,’” she said.
Her son Chris met Kulberg at school and the two became friends. When Meza heard that Kulberg was living in Star in an unstable situation, she offered her home as an alternative through H+H=S.
“We have bunk beds. I told him he could come here,” said Meza.
I know I’ll be welcome. I don’t have to call ahead and ask them if it’s OK if I stay there.
At 19, Kulberg is legally an adult. “But 19 still has the word ‘teen’ behind it,” Meza said.
She didn’t hesitate to lay down the house rules for Kulberg: No staying out late. Only one friend at the house at a time — and only after Meza has met them and given them the OK. The $100 she receives through H+H=S each month helps pay for food, the lasagna and cornbread, the spaghetti sauce that gets stretched into chili if there are leftovers.
The H+H=S stipend will end when Kulberg graduates.
“But if he doesn’t have a place to go, I’m not going to kick him out. He’s good company for my son. They do their homework together,” said Meza.
And there are ways to supplement the food budget if need be, she said, including Catholic Charities and local food pantries.
For Kulberg, having a consistent place to stay where he knows no one’s going to steal his belongings, is a relief.
“I know when I come home, Pam and Chris will be there. It’s like a family. I know I’ll be welcome. I don’t have to call ahead and ask them if it’s OK if I stay there,” said Kulberg.
Unaccompanied and deeply challenged
Being an unaccompanied youth adds an even deeper level of difficulty to being homeless.
“When parents aren’t able or just don’t fulfill their obligation to a child, it’s really hard,” said Jeanne Buschine. “Kids want to be normal, want to be successful, to graduate and to avoid some of the family drama that got them to this place.”
But unexpected and particular problems arise. One example was a student who had found a place to live, a job that paid enough for rent, a car and a driving learner’s permit. The problem was, a learner’s permit requires a licensed driver who is at least 21 to be with the permit holder in the car. The student didn’t have a reliable adult to fill that role. The only way he could get to work, to make rent money, was to drive alone and break the law. Buschine recently learned that the student dropped out of school.
Health care is another issue. Youth like Kulberg who are legally adults fall into the infamous health insurance “gap.”
Buschine just arranged for an uninsured, unaccompanied student to get immunizations and an exam required by the district for free through a local health clinic. But finding free resources in the community takes time. Counselors and school nurses can spend hours on the phone.
And what if something happens to an uninsured student when we’re not in school and can’t help them? As a society, we’ve got to start figuring this out.
Jeanne Buschine, West Ada School District homeless grant liaison
“And what if something happens to an uninsured student when we’re not in school and can’t help them? As a society, we’ve got to start figuring this out,” she said.
In some cases, unaccompanied youth are too proud to accept support from the school or community. Others choose to live in situations that are not healthy or stable.
“But when they’re adults, we can’t do anything about that,” said Buschine.
Hope for what’s ahead
Since moving in with Meza, Kulberg has been doing his part. His schedule is packed with history, government, English, economics, botany and more. He’s working on his senior project, a district graduation requirement. He’s researching Idaho drug law and whether the system emphasizes punishment too much over rehabilitation. He’s planning to attend the College of Western Idaho in the fall to study computer support.
In the meantime, he is interviewing for part-time jobs and learning healthy ways to cope with stress. During Christmas break, when he didn’t have the daily support of classes and counselors to turn to, he exercised. He ran every day. He racked up thousands of push-ups.
“I know what it was like to be in a homeless shelter, wasting time, wasting my days. Now I feel really spoiled,” said Kulberg.
After they parted ways, Kulberg’s mom moved back to North Dakota. The two keep in touch.
“It was just her birthday,” said Kulberg. “I gave her a call.”
His mom plans to come see him graduate in May.
“I’m really stoked. I want to take her out for dinner,” said Kulberg.
Ada County included in national study on homeless youth
Chapin Hall, a social research center at the University of Chicago, has begun a new research project, “Voices of Youth Count.” The project will study homeless youth in 28 counties across the U.S., including Ada County. The project aims to determine how many unaccompanied, homeless and runaway youth live in Ada County, why children run away from home or become homeless, and how they manage to get by. The project will study what services are available for unaccompanied, homeless and runaway youth and what services are most effective.
Larry Maneely, chief of staff for the Ada County commissioners, said the city of Boise and Boise State University are lead agencies in what county officials hope will become a larger partnership involving many local organizations and people. The count will take place in Ada County during May and June.
In the West Ada district, Jeanne Buschine said she’s hopeful the project will start a community conversation about this at-risk population of young Idahoans “left to their own devices, let down by the system, let down by adults.”