Living in the Shadows: How Homelessness Affects a Youth's Mental Health

May 6, 2016

  Sitting in an office at the Lutheran Family and Children's Services facility is Jessica Ruffin. She’s tall in stature, a little shy and has a smile that lights up a room. But behind that smile she hides the pain of a dysfunctional childhood. Growing up in Cape Girardeau she started couchsurfing when she was 8.


“I guess staying back and forth with my grandparents,” Ruffin said. “Even in our own home I guess what we called our home just not having utilities and water there. That was just basically homelessness to me.”


At school she tried to camouflage all of the harsh realities of her home life with lies. Especially when her classmates teased her about the way she smelled.


“People were talking about me and always trying to find something,”Ruffin said. “And [I could] not let them know that my mom's and stuff was disconnected or my mom was on drugs.”


Ruffin was taking care of her siblings while trying to maintain her grades. But eventually she hit her breaking point, when her mom spent her school field trip money on drugs. Normally, she would have kept quiet, but her teacher noticed something wasn’t right.

“My teacher just really kept asking me and I finally opened up told her that I thought it was from drug usage and stuff in the house,” Ruffin said.


For a while the weight was lifted off of her shoulders. She thought things would get better at home. But that wasn’t the case. Ruffin and her siblings were split-up and put into the foster care system when she was 11.


“It was just so weird that I seen all these police cars at school,” Ruffin said. “And then I got called to the office. And I'm thinking in my head like what did I do wrong. And I get to the office and they tell me like, 'you're going to state custody.'”


Today, she doesn’t have much of a relationship with her mother or her siblings. And, she still blames herself for speaking out.


“I remember always being told when I went to the other family members house like, 'you got taken away from your mom,'” Ruffin said. “Everybody was quite vulgar about everything that happened.”


After two years in the foster care system her grandmother adopted her. But living with her didn’t last long. She bounced between relatives homes and a group home before moving in with her father. That was the place she called home until he died in 2009.


“So, it just made me grow up fast,” Ruffin said. “I guess I try to keep everything in. To this day I think I'm still trying to learn how to just sit there and let it go, you know let it out.”


This isn’t uncommon. Homeless youth are more susceptible to mental health problems such as depression, suicide and anxiety according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.


“Youth who have had numerous trauma's in their life will often come across as very detached emotionally--unconnected,” said Shawna LeGrand, the associate director at the Cottonwood Residential Center in Cape Girardeau.


That’s Shawna LeGrand,  the associate director at the Cottonwood Residential Center in Cape Girardeau. While homelessness is traumatic for youth she says, it’s their environment that plays a major role on their mental health.


“Children who have predispositions for trauma based upon social and environmental factors continue to experience those traumas or additional traumas in their life,” LeGrand said. “I think that unfortunately those go unrecognized.”


Currently in Cape Girardeau there are numerous outpatient mental health resources for families and children like the Community Counseling Center and New Visions Counseling. However, Cottonwood is the only inpatient mental health facility for youth. Throughout the years, many of the kids LeGrand has worked with at Cottonwood have never known stability.


“For a youth who has never had significant or strong parenting and has kind of been on their own, I would be very cautious in trying to come in and over lead them,” LeGrand said. “Because obviously they've developed some pretty good skills to make it as long as they have.”


LeGrand says when trust is there and genuine relationships are formed youth will open up. As for Ruffin, she missed out on having that bond with her mom. And now, with three kids of her own she’s making sure they have that support system in her.


“I'm gonna be there for you,” Ruffin said. “It's gonna be doors always open for you. You will never have to go sleep on somebody couch and let them talk bad about you."


As of now she’s on the right path. She has a car, job and stable housing for her family.