At Risk in Charlotte

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This story is featured in the 2018 Hunger Report: The Jobs Challenge

Sixteen young men and women between the ages of 12 and 17 join us in a conference room on a bright Saturday morning in March 2017. Bread for the World Institute staff have come to meet with them. The youth are enrolled in a Life Skills Intervention Program that meets on Saturday mornings at the Urban League offices in downtown Charlotte. Charlotte’s branch of the Urban League provides services to some of the city’s most-at-risk youth. The group we meet with live in some of the poorest neighborhoods and attend the city’s most disadvantaged schools. The risks they face range from dropping out of school to substance abuse to incarceration to chronic unemployment.

Nationally, one in eight young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are disconnected from school or from both work and school, meaning they are neither in school nor working.1 Once youth become disconnected, the risk to their future increases. Disconnection is what the Urban League is trying to preempt. The most talkative member of the group tells us he is 12, although he looks closer to 10. When we ask what he wants to be when he grows up, he says he would prefer to stay home with his mother and protect her from danger. Most of the others say they are interested in attending college, but none of the older ones approaching graduation feels that high school has prepared them well for college. One of the 17-year-olds wants to become a nurse. When we ask whether anyone in her family is helping her reach her career goal, she responds sharply that she has no support system at home. But she sounds determined. “I asked my teacher what can I do to improve my grades to get into college,” she said.

One of the Urban League staff compliments her and points out that she is creating a support system for herself. “The teacher you went to is going to work for you because you’ve shown you want help. Now we’d love for you to have that support system at home, but if you don’t have it there, then you can create it with other people who are around you,” the staff member said.

Another of the Urban League staff commented after the meeting, “There is a young man who is involved in one of our computer training programs. I noticed that he wasn’t eating lunch when other students in the class were, and I asked, ‘Don’t you have anything to eat?’ He didn’t have money for food and was so proud that he didn’t want to say he was hungry. I connected him to services so that he has food now. When you’re hungry, it affects your whole person and your ability to succeed. Now he’s doing better in class because he has food. When the support you need is there for you, you should not feel ashamed in asking for it.”

Children in poverty are disproportionately affected by mental health challenges, putting them at higher risk of involvement with the criminal justice system.

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