Searching For Cuyahoga County’s “Disconnected Youth”

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On a recent weekday afternoon, Toni Arnold-Spikes drove her black sedan around Cleveland’s East Side, ping-ponging between recreation centers and public libraries, searching for young people who aren’t in school and aren’t at work. 

As a recruiter for the nonprofit Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU), Arnold-Spikes said she goes out about once a week, scoping out not just public facilities, but also barber shops, beauty salons, block parties, and pickup basketball games. 

When she comes across young people who are out of school and unemployed, Arnold-Spikes, who sports a streak of magenta in her hair and an easy smile, gently interrogates them about their life plans and encourages them to consider one of YOU’s free work training programs.

“You’re getting them on that right path,” Arnold-Spikes said. “You’re giving them that second chance. Especially if they weren’t planning on going to college or to the Marines. Or if they’re not working.”

Arnold-Spikes, however, is fighting this sobering statistic: in Cuyahoga County, an estimated one out of seven people between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school nor employed full-time or part-time, according to a 2018 study by YOU and The Center for Community Solutions (CCS). Researchers sometimes call this group of people “disconnected” or “disengaged youth.” 

In 2017, there were an estimated 4.5 million “disconnected youth” nationwide, according to a new report by Measure of America, a project of the nonprofit Social Science Research Council. 

The economic consequences of that disengagement are real. CCS estimates that lost wages, lost tax revenue, and added spending on social services total about $44,158 a year for each disengaged youth. That’s about $900 million per year, according to the CCS study. 

That’s one reason why YOU receives state and city funds to hire recruiters like Arnold-Spikes. 

“The more hours that I work, the more young adults that I touch, the more young adults are getting off the streets,” said Toni Arnold-Spikes, a recruiter for Youth Opportunities Unlimited. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

Outside the Langston Hughes branch of the Cleveland Public Library between the Hough and Glenville neighborhoods, Arnold-Spikes spots a young woman with pinkish hair, Kvonna Pompoi. As they chat, Arnold-Spikes learns that Pompoi is 18 years old and graduating high school this spring, but she hasn’t totally figured out what’s next. 

“Are you planning on going to college?” Arnold-Spikes asked. 

“Mmhmm,” Pompoi said. 

“Are you already signed up?”

“No, not yet.”

“Let me give you one of my cards just in case.” 

Arnold-Spikes reached into the back seat of her car and pulled out some brochures: one for a six-week summer job program and another for a free class that trains young people for customer service jobs. She handed them to Pompoi. 

“Give us a call, even before you graduate, if you think that the customer care program may be something you may be interested in,” Arnold-Spikes said. 

As Arnold-Spikes got back into her car to head to another library, she said that recruiting is time-consuming, but worth it. 

“That's why I'm in the field,” she said, “because I'm willing to take a chance for the young adults so they can have a better opportunity than a lot of us had growing up.” 

A lot of young people become disengaged because they don’t have a post-high school plan, said Arnold-Spikes. Some are dealing with poverty, health problems, or family issues. 

For 19-year-old Ricco Williams, one of his challenges was that he never finished high school, which he said has made it tough to find work that pays more than minimum wage. He lives in Euclid with his mom, older siblings, and a little Yorkie named Teebo.

Ricco Williams, and the family dog Teebo, in the living room of his mom's house in Euclid. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

Williams said that he has been more-or-less unemployed for the past four months, although he’s managed to piece together the occasional odd-job for cash. 

There was a time, years ago, when he might have considered selling drugs to make ends meet, he said. But that changed after his son was born about two years ago.

“I’m not trying to be that,” Williams said, “I’m trying to do it the right way.” 
In the short term, Williams said that doing it the “right way” means earning his GED, with some help from a free tutoring program at YOU. 

“I’m actually pretty close to passing,” Williams said. “It’s probably going to take me a couple more months though.”

Williams said he wants to support his son, so he’s trying to not become another “statistic.” 


This story is part of American Graduate: Getting to Work, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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