LAWTON, Okla._More than 700 youth in Lawton are homeless and one local non-profit group is doing all they can to help those kids find not just a place to live, but a place in society.
'The Next Step Lawton' group decorated a tree with green ribbon on the median of Southwest 11th Street and Gore Boulevard in recognition of Homeless Youth Awareness Month. On a daily basis, the program provides transportation, homes and resources to homeless children and young adults.
They serve the homeless between the ages of 13 and 21, and what makes this program special is that the youth are mentored by adults who have once been in state custody or lived on the streets themselves.
Shelby Bryant spent three years under DHS supervision in group homes. She entered at the age of 15 after growing up in an abusive and unstable home. At the age of 18, she wasn't ready for what the system calls "aging out."
"It's not easy living out here. Some people think, 'oh I can do it,' and I thought I can do it too and almost got kilted a couple of times. It's not something you want from your life," Bryant said
Onreka Givens was Shelby's former DHS case worker. After seeing so many kids become homeless, like Bryant, she decided to create The Next Step Lawton.
"We started off with young people just staying at my parents' or brother's, wherever we could find a couch, and then we got the partnership with Lawton Housing Authority and they provided us with a five-bedroom and we are trying to expand that as well," Givens explained.
Their housing resources are slim because they only have five spaces to house young adults overnight. However, they actively serve 30 youth with their other resources, such as transportation and mental health referrals. On top of that, there are roughly 200 other young adults who have signed up.
"We give them survival backpacks that have food, toiletries. Around this time of year we try to give them blankets and pillows, because we do have youth that are sleeping out literally on the streets or abandoned homes," Givens said.
They also provide someone to talk to who is always there.
"We are here to mentor and help these other kids to get out of that situation. We are not here to tell you what you should do, this is what you don't need to do. We are just here to tell you when you fall, we'll catch you," Bryant said.
The group hopes the young adults and children will be able to look back on their lives like Bryant does knowing she beat the odds.
"I am a manager at Target, so right now I am doing that. I have my own house and I'm pretty stable," Bryant said.
The Next Step Lawton is in need of resources, mentors and funding. Everything they have is strictly from donations. Everyone who works for them is a volunteer. As of now, because they are a start-up, they have not been able to apply for any grants. They hope, now that people are aware of what they do, more help will begin to come in.