Ph.D Student Turned Advocate Stands Up For Homeless Youth

04/25/2011 12:57 pm ET | Updated Jul 19, 2011

Thirteen kids die on the street every day.

This is the central tenet that inspires StandUp For Kids, an organization dedicated to youth homelessness across the country, and it's what originally drew Eddy Ameen to their work. "Way back in my freshman year of college, a teacher had told me that the average age of a homeless person was 9-years-old," Eddy said. "It hit me, probably because it was something I wasn't really aware of."

A few years later, living in Miami and pursuing a Ph.D in counseling psychology, Eddy got an email from StandUp For Kids. Their new Miami branch was looking for street outreach counselors, people who could search for and identify kids, and link them into services within the community. He thought he could help out for a few hours per week in his free time.

Eddy remembers the Miami program being extremely barebones at first. The number of volunteers wasn't increasing, and nobody was quite sure how to best reach out. "There'd be three or four of us, wearing StandUp For Kids shirts, walking around the Miami boardwalk, speaking with security officers and other people in the neighborhood, seeing if they knew about youth living on the streets there," he recalled. "We just talked to everyone we walked past."

If Eddy met someone who needed help, he'd distribute a food or hygiene pack, hand out his contact info, and, if they needed further attention, refer them to health organizations.

"The best thing we'd do is ask the question: If we could do anything for you today, what would that be?" Eddy said. "We're OK with kids making the decision to stay on the street, we're OK with a lot of things. We ultimately want to rescue, but we realize our strength is not in persuasion or coming in as their knights in shining armor."

Eddy increased his commitment to StandUp For Kids, upping his weekly involvement despite still pursuing his Ph.D full-time, and he began meeting more and more young people affected by homelessness.

"Nobody in Miami wanted to admit that these homeless youth existed," he said. "Close to 3,000 homeless kids exist in the Miami area, but there were hardly any services designed for them. It became more an overwhelming sense of responsibility; how could I know about this and not offer my help?"

When the position of Executive Director for Miami's StandUp For Kids branch opened up (an unpaid promotion), the national organization offered Eddy the job. "I was still in school, I didn't think I could do it, but I told myself I'd do it for a few months until they got someone else." But nobody who knew Eddy believed he would be able to give up the position after such a short time. "My friends knew I wouldn't be able to stop," he said.

Soon, Eddy was throwing almost all his time into the organization. "I would call up the national office several times a day, run them ragged with ideas. They were like, 'You need to slow down a little bit!' And I thought: 'I like that. I'd rather have too many ideas than none at all.'"

His first task was to bring in more volunteers, since the organization only had three or four regulars. He partnered with other volunteer groups in the Miami area, getting the organization's name out there, and ramped up his outreach to a few more nights a week. They began meeting more youth homeless through churches and soup kitchens and referrals from people in the community.

Eddy remembers two brothers he saw every week at a soup kitchen. "At first, they didn't ask for help, they refused it," Eddy said. But the volunteers at the kitchen said these kids were struggling -- living in an abandoned building with a substance-abusing father -- and he should be persistent with them. "After a few meetings, they really opened up. I would give one of these kids a food pack and he would ask for another one. I'd say, 'why do you need the extra?' He'd say, 'I know this kid who lives behind the library who really needs it.'" Eddy connected the kids with homes and foster care. Today, the oldest brother is on his way to a GED, and military training in Texas.

"There are good stories and sad stories," Eddy said. "We've learned to get kids to define their goals and feel a motivation to pursue them. We said, 'if you want this to happen, it can happen.'"

In August of last year, an internship at the Child Guidance Clinic of D.C. Superior Court opened up, which combined Eddy's interests so harmoniously that he couldn't pass it up. He thought he'd move to D.C., give StandUp For Kids some breathing room, and pursue other things for a bit. But a few months passed and he found himself giving a major speech at the national StandUp For Kids conference, sharing about a million ideas. "Uh oh," Eddy thought. "Back again."

Today, Eddy hopes he can bring the lessons he learned from Miami to help the national organization take shape. And he still volunteers locally as much as he can. "Eddy is now engaged in our Outcome Measurement Committee, Training Committee, National Conference Committee and Public Policy Committee," said David Bakelman, the CEO of StandUp For Kids, touting Eddy's many accomplishments. "We joke in our national office that Eddy will take 10 years to finish his doctorate as he is spending so much time with StandUp For Kids."

"I want to take this higher now," Eddy said. "I want to be a thorn in the policymakers' sides."

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