COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Krystal Whitaker's story doesn't have a perfect ending. She's a success story, but with homeless teens, success doesn't always come with a ribbon tied on it.
Krystal, 17, came to Columbia two years ago from the Philadelphia area. Her mother died when she was a child, and she was introduced to her father for the first time at age 14. He lived only a block away.
"He's a mechanic, and he has money to buy drugs, but not to buy me lunch," she wrote in an essay.
On the day after Christmas 2008, Krystal was sent to live with her closest relative, an uncle in Columbia. That arrangement didn't work out, and she soon found herself living in a park off Paris Road.
For a while, she lived with a friend. Then she found Sol House, a transitional living program for homeless teens. Over the past year, she has stayed there twice, leaving first because she was "acting up" and couldn't follow the house rules. The second time she left because she became pregnant.
Now she's back living in her uncle's home and preparing for life as a single mother.
"It's basically like I've been taking care of myself since I was young," she said. "So it's like you learn on your own how to be an adult because people aren't there to teach you."
But Krystal said her time in Sol House gave her new confidence. She's back at Hickman High School making A's and B's and is taking classes at the Columbia Area Career Center to pursue her dream of becoming a professional chef. Last year, she wrote an essay about her life that she was asked to read at the state Capitol.
"I'll make it," she said. "It's going to be hard, but I have no choice."
At a recent event at the Columbia Public Library, leaders of Rainbow House, the parent organization of Sol House, kicked off Homeless Youth Awareness Month. The event included a proclamation read by Mayor Bob McDavid and a panel of homeless and formerly homeless teens.
Founded in 2007, Sol House is a series of three adjoining apartments in east-central Columbia. Its exact location is kept secret for the residents' protection, some of whom are fleeing abuse. It can house as many as eight people at a time, ages 16 to 21, and is funded in part by a U.S. Department of Health and Senior Services grant. The house routinely has a long waiting list.
During the panel discussion, teens told tales of desperate nights, self-destructive choices, setbacks and, ultimately, returning to a more stable path. Many credited their mentors at Sol House for helping them get GEDs or develop a career plan, or just for being there on a night where they found themselves "at a crossroads."
"They give you all the resources that a parent should give you but has failed to," said Samantha Summers, 21, a former Sol House resident who is now living independently and expecting her second child.
Heather Windham, the transitional living program director at Sol House, said often the most important aspect of Sol House is that teens know they can always come back and lean on house managers for advice and help with basic life skills. The house provides a relationship many have never had before. "I was at one conference where they said, 'Permanency isn't about a roof over your head, it's about a relationship,"' Windham said. "And I think that's what we're in the business for, more than just housing -- it's that relationship."
Windham said the youth homeless problem in Columbia might not be apparent, but it's very real.
"I came from Los Angeles, where I worked with street kids at a drop-in center," Windham said. "And if you saw these kids, they definitely looked chronically homeless. And in Columbia, I don't think you'd really know. If you looked at our residents, you wouldn't think they're homeless or they've been homeless. They just look like young people. So my advice is to be involved in teenagers' lives ... because they may look fine and happy on the outside, but they may have to go to a home where there's an addict, where nobody's at the home to cook them dinner or there might be fighting and violence and abuse."
Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, http://www.columbiatribune.com