NEW ORLEANS- When Meonia Terrell smiles, it's hard not to do the same. On a Saturday afternoon, the petite 18-year-old giggled and gave high fives as she won a game of hoops.
But Terrell is also working to triumph over much bigger issues. 'When I was 18 I had some trouble going on at home and I couldn't take it anymore,' said Terrell. 'I ran away from home.'
And that's how she found the Covenant House. It's the only shelter in New Orleans that takes in homeless youth. And it is seeing record numbers of young people in need of its services.
An average of 105 teens and young adults sleep in the shelter each night. That's a 30 percent increase over the last two years.
'They have troubles,' said Terrell. 'Sometimes bad things are being done in their homes, and they feel like they can't take it anymore. That's how I felt.'
Director Jim Kelly says many of the shelter's young people come from dysfunctional homes. 70 to 80 percent are victims of abuse.
'The breakdown of the mental health system in our state is impacting more and more kids,' said Kelly.
Kelly believes an underfunded mental health care system makes it harder for parents and kids to get the help they need. Post-Katrina stress and instability helps fuel the problem, he said.
'We need to be spending and investing more dollars on this 16- to 22-year-old population,' said Kelly. 'The dollars we spend there will be multiplied.'
Tulane University's Cowen Institute estimates there are 12,000 to 16,000 at risk youth in New Orleans.
Estimates for the population of homeless youth are sketchy, said Kelly. But those seeking shelter at the Covenant House are never turned away.
'There's always room for one more child. How do you say to a child, 'Sorry, we're full you can't come in tonight?' I refuse to do it.'
For now, Covenant House does what it can.
It offers counseling and requires each long term resident to have a job.
Terrell works in a restaurant and just finished high school. She is applying to nursing school and has big plans for the future.
'I was maybe down, but I got up. I'm happy now,' said Terrell.
Happy there's a place that saved her from a life on the streets and hopeful more teens will find help too.
The Covenant House runs mostly on donations.
It is especially in need of white collared shirts and black pants to help clients with jobs in the service industry.