TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Jeremiah Kerr, an advocate for homeless youth, understands his clients' struggles on a personal level.
"I realize now I was a homeless youth," Kerr, 28, said.
It's a revelation he has come to accept as the outreach and community development coordinator at the Ybor Youth Clinic on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, where he advises dozens of runaways and other homeless teenagers and young adults.
"If more people had more hands-on experience with the homeless, even spoke to a homeless person, they would have a better understanding of their living conditions," Kerr said.
Kerr's advocacy for homeless young people, especially lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teenagers, drew the attention of Tampa City Councilwoman Lisa Montelione, who came to know Kerr through his work with the Tampa- Hillsborough Homeless Initiative.
"He really genuinely cares for those kids and works tirelessly to help them find their path," Montelione said.
"He looks very young for his age. That may be why (they) relate to him."
Kerr was 16 when his father kicked him out of their house in Colorado because he was gay, he said. Without a place to stay, he headed east to live with his mother in Connecticut and slept on a couch at her apartment until they found a larger place.
But Kerr was determined not to be defined by adversity.
He moved to Tampa in 2008 to attend Hillsborough Community College, then he was accepted a year later to attend the University of Tampa, where he graduated in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in Government and World Affairs.
Kerr was preparing for a life of humanitarian work in far-flung parts of the world.
"My desire was always to enter the Peace Corps and work abroad," Kerr said.
Proficient in Spanish, Kerr taught English at an area learning center and traveled to Africa on a monthlong goodwill mission, he said.
But just before he completed the Peace Corps application, the unimaginable occurred. His mother lost her apartment in Connecticut and had no place to go.
"That got me interested in the homeless," Kerr said. Until then, "I never understood how someone could become homeless, especially my mother."
Though his mother's ordeal was temporary, that led Kerr to become a volunteer at the area homeless initiative organization, previously known as the Homeless Coalition.
In August 2011, Kerr's volunteer efforts with the homeless organization led to a full-time job with AmeriCorps Vista in Tampa. He served as the homeless youth coordinator, working mainly with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths at the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative headquarters, and helping to coordinate data collected for periodic homeless counts.
That experience led to his current job at the Ybor Youth Clinic, 1315 E. Seventh Ave., Suite 104, in July 2012. The clinic, which is sponsored by the University of South Florida, offers medical assistance and counseling services to teens and young adults ages 13 to 24 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
"Anyone who walks in the clinic is very drawn by his personality," said Tasha Ratliff, one of Kerr's co-workers. "He makes everybody feel comfortable."
Ratliff, the nurse family planning coordinator at the Ybor Youth Clinic, said Kerr recently took it upon himself to train the medical students who worked at the clinic on the organization's policies and procedures.
"It wasn't something he was asked to do," Ratliff said. "He just thought it was important."
Ashley Brundage, 33, a member of the clinic's advisory board, described Kerr as a "real go-to friend" who has given her the confidence to become a community volunteer. Brundage, who identifies as a male to female transgender person, said she and Kerr work together on transgender equality policies.
Kerr also finds time to work with the Big Brother/Big Sister organization. He and his "little brother," Cory McNair, a senior at Jefferson High, have visited nearly every amusement park in Tampa and Orlando and participated in charity works and volunteer programs.
"He is someone I look up to. I don't have many people I look up to in my life," McNair, 17, said.
"There is nothing more satisfying than to see someone's life improved through the small actions of your own," Kerr said.
Kerr hopes to earn a master's degree to become a licensed mental health counselor so he can be a more influential advocate for young people.
Although he no longer has a burning desire to work in the Peace Corps, he still wants to travel to faraway places such as Africa.
"I still want to go," Kerr said. "I want to go for fun."
Information from: The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, http://www.tampatrib.com
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