Once homeless and alone, teen finds hope in York

YORK (AP) — On a bright September morning in York, Morgan Washington-Henry pushed a cart containing her belongings out of York’s Bell Family Shelter and onto East Market Street.

“I’ll return the cart, but after that, I’m not coming back,” Washington-Henry said to the staff, smiling.

The 19-year-old’s smile belies a life of hardship. Earlier that summer, she was homeless for the second time since she had aged out of the foster care system. After a youth fractured by family members’ problems, she needed help to put the pieces back together.

Her new home — an apartment in the city — is a work in progress. The electricity isn’t on yet. Because she has no credit, the shelter had to co-sign for her utilities. She doesn’t have any furniture, so she sleeps on a nest of blankets on the floor. She doesn’t have a shower curtain, so she plans to hang up garbage bags she took from the shelter to keep water from spraying everywhere.

Though her apartment is empty, it is hers. With a place to stay and a new job at a warehouse, things are looking up.

“I’m so excited,” she said, hanging up artwork and setting up flowers she got to pick out from the shelter.

It’s been a long journey to anything resembling normal.

In the system

At a young age, Washington-Henry and her four older siblings were adopted by her grandmother. Her mother visited sporadically but was not a regular part of her life.

“I knew who she was, and I knew she was my mother, but I didn’t ask why she didn’t take care of me,” she said.

She never knew her father. The first time she learned who he was, in 2005, she also learned he’d died in a car crash.

Nonetheless, Washington-Henry described having an “amazing” childhood in suburban Harford County, Maryland, a childhood that might be considered ordinary — climbing trees, jumping on a trampoline and playing in the woods with her siblings.

“There was just joyful noise outside all the time,” she said. “There was just so many kids in the neighborhood, and we had a huge backyard.”

That ended when she was 12. Her grandmother died at age 59, and another relative who lived in Harford County became the children’s new legal guardian.

Stuck balancing her two jobs with raising the five children, their new guardian ruled with an authoritarian style. The freezer was kept locked, Washington-Henry said, and the relative often complained to the children about their siblings. Her brothers struggled with anger. One turned to drugs. Her oldest brother joined the Marine Corps, and she hasn’t seen him since.

An altercation at home led Washington-Henry to arrive at school one morning bleeding and bruised, she said. The school called Child Protective Services, and the state of Maryland put her in a group home.

There she met Carlita Coleman, who would soon become her best friend.

Washington-Henry had been a dancer at Aberdeen High, which has an award-winning dance program. The first time she met Coleman, she noticed she was wearing jazz shoes. She and “Cece,” as her friends called her, quickly bonded over their love of dance.

Coleman, two years older than her, also had been adopted, and ended up in the group home after allegations of abuse in her foster family, Washington-Henry said.

The two became roommates. Washington-Henry helped Coleman learn things such as how to make healthy decisions shopping for groceries. Coleman helped her with her self-esteem.

“She just let me know that I was still loved, that I could still be loved, after everything that I’ve been through,” she said. “She let me know that I was still loved, and that I could still love back.”

When Washington-Henry turned 18, the state of Maryland washed its hands of her. She had a caseworker, but they soon fell out of contact. A judge ruled her an adult and sent her out into the world.

More than 18,000 children were slated to age out of foster care in 2014, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What happens next to those young adults depends on factors ranging from state policies to personal support systems, said George Collins-White, policy specialist at FosterClub, a national nonprofit that helps those who have been in foster care.

“Twenty-five percent of those who age out of foster care are homeless, at some point, within 18 months,” Collins-White said.

By November 2015, Washington-Henry was drifting among houses of friends while taking classes at Harford County Community College. She was working on her laptop when something on Facebook caught her attention.

That was how she learned that Cece had been murdered.

According to a Baltimore Sun report, Coleman was found in a wooded area near a park in Baltimore County, two weeks after she’d last been seen. Her decomposing body was covered with sticks and leaves. Coleman’s alleged killer, an acquaintance named Terrence Omar Newman, was charged with murder after someone told the police that Newman had confessed the crime to him.

“Afterwards I was hurt,” Washington-Henry said. “Right before I seen her, I went through a breakup with that same boy I was with. When I found out she passed away… I went to his house, and told him what happened, and I ended up staying with him over the weekend, which was so unhealthy for me. And it didn’t help anything.”

Turning to less-than-ideal people for support is a common problem for those living in a world without family, Collins-White said.

“Support systems have to be put into place,” Collins-White said. “For a teen who lives with parents, they already have the support system for when things get rough. Someone from foster care doesn’t have that.”

Washington-Henry dropped out of school, and she continued to drift around Harford County. With nowhere left to go, she lay down on the porch of a vacant apartment. A total stranger ended up driving her to Morgan’s sister’s house in Baltimore and gave her $300, two acts that she sees as God’s work.

In Baltimore, she was connected with a temporary job as a camp counselor in York County.

“During camp, that was my residence, but after that, I had nowhere to go,” she said. The Rev. James Shuler of First Presbyterian Church connected her with Bell Family Shelter, which helps families in need.

Though preference goes to mothers or fathers with children, the shelter also takes single women, said Marcella Kinard, director of shelter services. With a staff of about 18 and an annual budget of about $500,000, the 30-year-old facility provides food and lodging for an average of 40 people per night. In the winter that number has spiked as high as 65.

A family’s relationship with the shelter doesn’t end after 30 days, though, said Maria Perez. She and her then-teenage daughter stayed there for a month four years ago. Now, Perez is back on her feet, and her daughter is part of the Air Force ROTC program at West Virginia University.

“They were there for me,” Perez said. “They are like family.”

The shelter encouraged Washington-Henry to apply for jobs and search for housing, Kinard said. That wasn’t hard for Washington-Henry to do, but not all residents have been as motivated and outgoing as her, two qualities that have given her advantages in getting back on her feet.

Though she has a home and a job, Washington-Henry’s struggle for independence is far from over. She worries that she won’t get enough hours at work to pay her bills and afford basics like furniture. Without a vehicle, she struggles to buy healthy food and other essentials.

Still, she said her experiences have had some silver linings.

“It’s easy for me to step into someone else’s shoes because I’ve been through so much,” she said. “Just being able to recognize that, no matter how old you are, we’ve all been through some type of darkness, and we’re all striving to be better.”

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