Phoenix Dream Center offers safe haven for at-risk teens and young adults

The Phoenix Dream Center, a renovated Comfort Inn Hotel at 32nd and Grand Avenues houses dozens of homeless and at-risk youth. (Photo by Alexa D’Angelo/Cronkite News)

After the death of his parents, Ian Palmerton spent the first months of his life in an orphanage in Moscow until an American couple came to Russia and brought him to the U.S. to be adopted.

Instead, they decided not to keep him. By the time he was a teenager, he had been placed with three different families. All the adoptions failed.

“I was an angry kid,” said Palmerton, now 21. “I acted out and was never happy anywhere I went. I couldn’t love anyone.”

The last failed adoption left Palmerton in Arizona, where he bounced through more than 25 group homes for foster children in the Phoenix and East Valley area before he was 17.

When he turned 18, he says one of the employees handed him a big, black trash bag and told him to pack up his belongings and leave. He had aged-out of foster care.

In Arizona, when foster children turn 18, they have the option to continue living in the group home or to “opt out”.

Palmerton said he opted out because he wanted to be on his own. He spent several weeks sleeping on friends’ couches, never staying in the same place for long, until he was connected with the place he would call home for the next four years.

In 2013, Palmerton came to the Phoenix Dream Center, a nonprofit that serves homeless, low-income and at-risk youth. He stayed until he was just shy of his 21st birthday.

“The Dream Center was a lifesaver,” Palmerton said. “If I wasn’t here, I would probably be in jail or homeless by now. This place gave me a chance.”

Last year, about 800 young adults aged out of foster care in Arizona, according to Aid to the Adoption of Special Kids in Arizona (AASK).

The national Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative reports that of those who transition out of the foster care system, only 58 percent will graduate high school by age 19 and 71 percent of women are pregnant by age 21. At the age of 24, only half are employed, and one in four will be involved in the justice system within two years of leaving the system.

Eighteen-year-old Christall Jones’ birth mother was a prostitute and a cocaine addict who abandoned her then six-month-old daughter in a drug den. Jones weighed 4.5 pounds at birth and suffered drug withdrawals, the result of her mother’s drug use during pregnancy.

“They thought I was deaf for a long time,” Jones said. “It’s because I would cry and no one would do anything so I just stopped responding, the doctors told me.”

She was adopted at seven months old. For 16 years, she lived with a mother, father and two siblings. But as a teenager she entered a rebellious phase: staying out all night, drinking, doing drugs and skipping school.
Overwhelmed by her behavior, her parents took her to Saint Luke’s Behavioral Center. She lived in two group homes until she turned 18.

She, too, ended up at the Phoenix Dream Center. Founded in 2006, it began a program three years ago for children who have aged-out of the foster care system. It has since housed 30 youths, the program’s co-director Sherry Jones said.

“There are other similar programs in the Valley, but we are the only faith-based program,” Sherry Jones said. “We tell them God has a place for everyone, and we offer them that place and love they may not have had in their lives.”

More than 230,000 young people across the country have transitioned from foster care without permanent family connections since 1999, according to the Missouri-based Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.

The Dream Center at 32nd and Grand Avenues is a former Comfort Inn Hotel. It used to house junkies, prostitutes and transients. Now it provides shelter to people like Palmerton and Jones.

In his first day at the Dream Center, Palmerton said he was shown to his room where a welcome basket filled with clothes, chips, cookies and toiletries waited on his bed. That same month, the center threw him a birthday party, the first he’d ever had.

“Here we work on what we think are the three most important things for a young person,” Sherry Jones said. “And that is their social, spiritual and emotional well-being. We try to love them through the tough times in their lives and show them that someone cares about them.”

Sherry Jones, who along with her husband, lives and works at the Dream Center, said once they enter the program, they can stay until they are 21. They pay rent, go to school or work full time.

“The kids that come to us have often been in some form of foster care for their entire lives,” she said. “They aren’t prepared, they haven’t established parameters for themselves, they don’t know how to budget or attend school regularly. One of the requirements of our program is that they go to church services regularly as well.”

Palmerton stayed at the Dream Center home until he was 21. He now is working at a mission in Mexico in conjunction with the Phoenix Dream Center and comes “home” to see Sherry Jones and the crew on his birthday and on breaks.

“It’s been a hard road, but I found my home here,” Palmerton said. “I found love here.”

He said the Dream Center taught him what kind of man he wanted to be: kind, responsible and Godly.

“Out in the group homes, you don’t belong to anyone, but at the Dream Center you do and it has taught me to take the initiative in my own life, even though the biggest challenge was getting used to having an authority figure look out for me,” Palmerton said. “I’m thankful for it every day.”

Sherry Jones said living on the campus allows her to better connect and forge relationships with the young adults. She said she started the program three years ago after the Dream Center director, Pastor Brian Steele, approached her with “alarming statistics.”

She saw the need for a housing solution.

“I’m like the mother here,” Jones said. “I get off of the elevator when I come home from work and I’m met with a dozen kids wanting to show or tell me something. It’s like a real family. We go shopping, we have movie and game nights, and we try and make a home environment here.”

“When we and the house parents are on the campus, we can get to know the kids better and help them to grow their independent living abilities,” she said. “It helps that we are involved and we instill in them a routine and a sense of normalcy. We make sure they make their beds and go to school and are there to provide mentorship and guidance, like a parent.”

The young adults share rooms with one or two others, Sherry Jones said, and everyone lives on the campus. It instills a sense of family and responsibility they haven’t had before, she said.

“We make a transition plan with the kids, and we outline their goals,” she said. “We require they go to church services once a week and attend school or work if they have finished school. These kids are not prepared for independent life when they come to us, so we make sure that we help them the best that we can.”

Palmerton didn’t have a plan when he left foster care.

“The problem is some of them opt out and they no longer want our help,” said Pam Harris, a caseworker with the Arizona Department of Child Safety’s Young Adult Program. “They’re 18 and they think they can handle everything on their own, but they find out that they can’t very quickly.”

The Young Adult Program through DCS works to prepare kids before they turn 18 by encouraging skills they need to be successful in life, such as financial planning, housing and schooling.

“We work hard to make sure each of our kids has a fluid plan,” Harris said. “We start these conversations at 16 and meet each month with the kid to check-in and keep their plan for aging out in motion.”

But caseworkers are overloaded and sometimes young adults can fall through the cracks.

“Caseworkers are supposed to have a load of about 30 cases,” Harris said. “In Maricopa County, our social workers have a caseload of about 65 on average.”

However, Harris said in most cases, the young adults believe they can go out and be successful on their own the day they turn 18.

“Those are the kids that end up homeless, in jail or pregnant,” Harris said. “Then they come back to us and say they screwed up.”

Eighteen-year-old Christall Jones still lives at the Dream Center.
“I wasn’t allowed home,” she said. “But since all this happened, I see my parents once a week and am trying to regain their trust.”

“The Dream Center is helping me with that because I’m getting closer to God and my parents see I’m changing, I’m sad because I don’t get to live with my parents, but being here right now is the best thing for me,” she added.