Joint Hearings on Youth Homelessness: Testimony of Joseph Hill-Coles
On Thursday, April 28, public hearings were held in City Council to discuss the issue of youth homelessness in Philadelphia. Joseph Hill-Coles, a young adult resident at our Francis House of Peace residence, delivered the testimony below at the hearing.
Good afternoon. My name is Joseph Hill Coles and I am 22 years old. My story is about who I was and who I am today.
I was born a crack baby to a drug addicted mother in Philadelphia. My dad was not on the scene and my mom made an attempt to raise me for three years while child services kept their eyes on her, as they had since I was born. At age 3 my mom put me up for adoption, but because I was hard to place, I spent 8 years in more foster homes than I can remember, only staying for a few weeks at a time. Passed around, a problem left for case workers to figure out, a name on a file, a number…I was someone no one seemed to want.
Finally adopted at age 10 by a loving single lady, I had found a home. In spite of my good fortune, I was still a very angry kid. Anger consumed me and directed my behavior. I was kicked out of numerous schools, I was hurting the relationship with my adopted mom, and destroying any opportunity to make something positive out of myself. After a few years, my life began to become as much about leaving home on my own to go and do what I wanted, to being kicked out by my mom because I was running wild. I was a complete mess.
At age 17 I was arrested and locked up as an adult for a year and a half. There I was, a number yet again. Once released, it became all about survival. I house hopped until I wore out my welcome and then spent a couple of months living on the streets. Selling drugs just to be able to have money to eat, I slept in LOVE Park, in abandoned buildings, and eventually found myself in and out of adult shelters. I wonder if any of you have ever been to an adult shelter? Let me tell you, it was no joke. All types of folks crammed together in one building—chronic homeless, drug addicts, people that just got released from jail, folks with serious mental health issues—all piled in together. 30 men in one shower room, bed bugs, terrible food…One night I woke up and there was a rat on my bunk. I’m sure those places try to do some good, but it didn’t feel that way to me at the time. I was just another homeless person in the way, just a number, just a body filling a bed.
When I first arrived at Covenant House I was still street minded. After being passed around so many times, I didn’t think they were going to be anything different. 3 hots and a cot was all I expected and all I allowed myself to get. I didn’t trust anyone, didn’t care about the rules, and tried to just do what I wanted. Needless to say, I was in and out of Covenant House several times, but they never gave up on me and always welcomed me when I came back. Then, one day, something in me changed. I realized I was going nowhere…The street had nothing to offer me besides eventual time behind bars or a coffin. The people at Covenant House really did seem to care. I had a home setting again that could provide me with the structure and love I desperately needed. It was clean and it was safe, so different than the other shelters. I made an active decision to change. I followed a schedule. I actively searched and found legitimate employment. I learned to think ahead, not just think of “now.” I decided to trust the staff and build relationships with them. I was pushed to succeed and I respected the staff for doing that. Covenant House gave me a firm foundation from which to start again and to help me work to the point that I didn’t see homelessness as an option anymore. I began to make a transformation from who I was for so many years to who I am today.
During my time at Covenant House, I moved from Covenant House’s shelter to its transitional living program, Rights of Passage, where I had an apartment but still had the support I needed. I worked, first at the Monkey and the Elephant, a great coffee shop that seeks to employ former foster care youth. Isn’t that awesome? A business that hasn’t forgotten those of us that were left behind by others. I’ve also been a mentor at YouthBuild, helping people just like me, and now I work at Urban Tree Connection, an organization that turns vacant lots into community gardens. And a few weeks ago, I moved into my own beautiful apartment at the brand new Project HOME Francis House of Peace just a few blocks from here.
I was many things before Covenant House…but I have chosen not to let those things in my past define me. The staff helped to shape me into the man before you today. My commitment back is to help shape the lives of younger youth so they don’t end up on the streets like I did.. I am a success…I am a leader…I am wanted…I am supported and cared for…I am loved…I am Joseph.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here today. I would welcome any questions.