Cori Dixon's beauty surprises, as though no one who's endured what she has could have eyes so bright.

Unmarred as she seems, Cori, 17, who remembers her first tumultuous years were in Cherry Hill and Woodbury, carries the burdens of having lived much of her life homeless or close to it.

"I feel like a 50-year-old woman, I've been through so much," Cori said. "I just wanted to be a teenager for a while."

Cori will participate in a conference next month in which young people will discuss homelessness and related issues. 

To educate others, Cori already tells stories of homelessness as part of a group known as Youth HEALers Stand Up! The HEALers are part of People's Emergency Center, a West Philadelphia nonprofit that offers housing, job training, life skills, and other resources for the homeless.

Homelessness is so complex that even the advocates and city officials who fight it can't agree on how to quantify it. That's why it's hard to say how many homeless children live in Philadelphia.

PEC recently reported there were 6,583 Philadelphia children from birth through grade 12 who were homeless last year, based on numbers from the School District of Philadelphia and the state Department of Education.

Of those, 23 were unsheltered, while the rest were either couch surfing (living outside the home with friends or family), or in shelters, or in transitional housing, numbers show.

The city does not count couch surfers as being homeless. It does, however, include in its homelessness census all people under age 21 living in emergency and temporary housing. By that count, city officials recorded 3,885 homeless children and youth in fiscal year 2016, and 3,777 in fiscal year 2017. And this year, the city reported no unsheltered children.

The numbers don't seem to be changing in any dramatic way, said Liz Hersh, the city's director of the Office of Homeless Services. Still, she said, "a single homeless child is a crisis," adding that homeless kids do less well in school, earn less money over their lifetimes, and are more likely to be depressed.

What is amazing about homeless children "is what they're capable of once they get an opportunity," said Sister Mary Scullion, founder of the anti-homelessness nonprofit Project Home. "You see them have that fire in their bellies."

That's exactly what's happening to Cori, said PEC youth housing organizer Rashni Stanford. "She and other children like her have lived homelessness, and they want to help others."

In a PEC meeting room earlier in the week, Cori joined another 17-year-old HEALer who experienced homelessness and housing insecurity. Christopher Jones had lived a troubled life in Olney and, like Cori, somehow overcame his past to arrive at a stable present.

"They have a level of maturity that is more elevated than most teens I meet," said Joe Willard, vice president for policy at PEC. "That's in part because of their life experiences. They had to get more mature for a lot of reasons compared to the average teen out there."

"I wish I had someone to ask me, 'Are you OK?'"
Cori Dixon

Cori remembers being in a homeless shelter with her mother when she was 5. She doesn't understand why, though she recalls her mother being sick and falling down in pain.

Afterward, she lived with an aunt, then moved back with her mother in a house. "Dang, our own house," Cori would say to herself, incredulous still that she once lived "normally."

It didn't last, as stress and conflict became part of the household routine. Cori was taken from her home and lived with a family member, but the two didn't mesh.

"I had depression and anxiety and was suicidal," she said.

Back she went with her mother, living in broken-down studio apartments in Cobbs Creek. Cori slept on a shower curtain on a grimy floor that hadn't seen a broom in years.

By the time she was 14, Cori said, her mother was not in the picture. Cori wandered around Philadelphia, without a place to stay. Eventually she went to an emergency shelter.

Homeless kids have to attend school, and Cori recalls how little math mattered during that awful time of pain and instability.

"What was the point of school?" she asked. "I had no focus, no peace."

One day, a school official sent her back to the shelter because her uniform had a tear in it. The young woman who washed her clothes in a tub and had no family to talk to at the end of the day was being hassled for a technical infraction by an adult who didn't take the time to understand Cori's plight.

"I wish I had someone to ask me, 'Are you OK?'"

Nowadays, she lives in a community home in Germantown. Her goal when she starts her senior year at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School in September is to improve her grades, which have declined.

"I know I can get straight A's," said the budding writer and philosopher. "But your mind is on so many things. You feel stuck."

Christopher, who shared fewer details, remembers living long periods of time by himself as a child without any adults to guide him. He spent years couch surfing, sleeping in other people's living rooms. Twice, he was arrested for fighting.

"I have been angry and sad," he said, skipping the specifics. After his senior year at Eastern Academy Charter High School in East Falls next year, he'd like to study behavioral health, a subject that interests him given the aberrant adult behavior he's witnessed all his life.

One day, Cori may be a registered nurse. Or a philosopher. Or something else. The point is, she said confidently, now she believes she can begin to dream and to look ahead.

"I don't live in sad memories anymore," she said. "That's how people become miserable."

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city's push toward economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.