Unhoused in York: At 18, Vinnie says she's built for life on the streets

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

EDITORS NOTE: York County is home to at least 300 unsheltered people, according to the most recent point-in-time count, although experts say that estimate likely reflects an undercount because of the transient nature of life on the streets. There's no one single type of homelessness, just as the unhoused don't easily fit popular stereotypes about them. Over the span of more than six months, reporter Meredith Willse and photographer Daniella Heminghaus reported on our region's unhoused population. This week, they will tell the stories of three people they followed over the course of their reporting.

To most people, Vincette Jackson looks like an ordinary teen.

On a typical afternoon, the 18-year-old better known as Vinnie can be found joking with her friends from a booth inside a York City McDonald’s restaurant, scrolling through TikTok videos on her phone.

Jackson’s bubbly disposition belies the fact that she’s one of an estimated 6,000 unaccompanied, unhoused young Pennsylvanians who live a precarious existence with little or no support from adult relatives. And that figure, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, likely does not reflect the reality because of how difficult it is to track homelessness — particularly among young people.

Jackson, for her part, is proud of how she’s been able to handle living on the streets and the problems that come with it. 

“I was built for it,” she said.

Vincette Jackson, better known as Vinnie, sits with her friend Prince at the McDonalds in York on Sept. 7, 2022.

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For example, she learned how to spend hours in the relative safety and warmth of McDonald’s without too much hassle from the workers there. She routinely creates new promotional accounts that give her a free order of fries. So long as she leaves the container upright, with a few fries left inside, the managers will leave her alone. At a minimum, it will buy Jackson and her friends a few hours.

“They eventually get annoyed with me,” she said, “but that’s because I’m here almost every day.”

Of course, not everything in Jackson’s life is so easy.

Jackson ran away from her foster parents, who live a short bus ride away. The couple, who could not be reached for comment, told her they’d welcome her back so long as she followed their rules. And they’ve done their best to tell Jackson they’re proud of her, giving her bus money when they see her.

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But the 18-year-old hasn’t taken them up on their offer of a more stable home — due to some combination of her own desire to be free, the responsibility she feels toward her friends and her guilt for leaving other people on the streets.

Jackson and her twin sister were born in Virginia and entered the foster system at a young age due to what Jackson described as physical and sexual abuse by her birth family. The York Dispatch could not reach any family members for comment. While her sister has opened lines of communication with the birth family, Jackson said she’s tried to keep her distance.

A broken window at the building Vinnie and her friends were staying at near Penn Park in York on Oct. 13, 2022.

At a young age, Jackson said she and her twin were taken in by a foster couple who planned to adopt them. The foster family moved to York County about six years ago. But the adoption process came to a halt when Jackson's foster mother died.

Jackson left for the streets soon after her foster father remarried.

Medical challenges: Sitting inside York City’s Union Evangelical Lutheran Church, which serves as a hub for the area’s unhoused population with hot coffee and places to charge phones, Jackson calmly listed a series of ailments she’s been diagnosed with: anorexia, bulimia, anxiety and depression. She’s seen various doctors and received various diagnoses but, because she is unhoused, she doesn’t always get quality or consistent treatment.

Each time she sees a new doctor, Jackson said, she often walks away with a new diagnosis. She tries to eat better and take her prescribed medications on time but the unpredictable nature of her life — and her own feelings of depression — make it difficult.

“I can’t sit in a room by myself,” she said, “because, if I do, I will find a way to hurt myself.”

At the end of the day, Jackson said she knows what she has to do, even if she struggles. 

“If I don’t, nobody does,” she said.

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Despite missing 45 days of school, Jackson is proud of having graduated from the York County School of Technology. She doesn’t have the diploma, however, because the school demanded she return a laptop it lent to her.

Jackson said she kept putting it off through the summer and fall.

In the meantime, she’s looking for jobs at the usual places — most recently, Dollar General. When she’s able to land a job, however, her depression is a major stumbling block. For example, she called out sick from one job for several days, much to the chagrin of her employers.

'Just like the movies': Walking through York City, she points out all that she’s learned.

Jackson avoids Penn Park and the Rail Trail due to drug activity and gang activity. She will only go to Cherry Lane, where she can charge her phone in public, during the daylight hours. At night, she said the picturesque patio is taken over by drug users who shoot up. Market Street, meanwhile, is a hub for prostitution.

“It’s just like the movies,” she said, laughing.

More:Unhoused in York: Videos tell the stories of people in our community without shelter

People partaking in the light up York festivities passing by an unhoused community member in Cherry Lane in York on Dec. 3, 2022.

Jackson said men have reached out to touch her thigh and ask for sexual favors in exchange.

That, she said, is not her thing.

In public, the teen tries to walk in groups to avoid such dangerous situations.

Walking everywhere presents its own complications: This summer, she developed shin splints. And she spends a lot of energy each day figuring out the logistics of arriving for appointments and ensuring she has enough water.

At various points, she lived in apartments and homes of acquaintances. For example, she would sneak into the home of her on-again-off-again boyfriend after 2 a.m. because the teen’s white family didn’t approve of their interracial relationship, Jackson said. She’d walk around the block a few times, waiting for the all-clear signal from him.

The apartment where Vinnie and others stayed at in York on Sept. 7, 2022.

Jackson admits that she’s had several toxic relationships.

With her most recent boyfriend, Jackson said, she shared a “what’s mine is yours” lifestyle. In McDonald’s, for example, she confronted him over missing change from her purse. Their squabbling is sometimes joking, she said, and sometimes not.

“You make my eye twitch,” she told him.

If it’s possible to love and hate someone at the same time, Jackson said, that’s how she feels.

When the couple’s relationship ended earlier in 2022, Jackson was back on the streets, in between brief stints in transitional housing and at LifePath Christian Ministries’ women’s shelter.

She felt safe in LifePath but ran into problems there. The staff was strict, forcing her to empty the contents of her bag every time she entered the building to check for drugs and alcohol.

Sharing an apartment: Later, she moved into an apartment with her on-again-off-again boyfriend with two other friends. They shared a single bedroom in the back of the apartment and no one cleaned up after themselves.

At one point, a picked-over turkey sat in a baking tin on top of the stove for days, the fat congealing to the pan. Empty milk containers, energy drink cans and other garbage littered the coffee table in front of the main door. Cockroaches crawled across the floor.

It wasn’t the healthiest environment, Jackson said, but it was better than the alternatives.

The room where Vinnie Jackson, in center, and others stayed at in York on Sept. 7, 2022.

In September, someone — Jackson never confirmed who it was — stole her identity. Then, the utility company cut the apartment’s power.

After several days in the dark, Jackson said she caved and called her foster parents, who arrived with a bag of supplies. When they saw her living conditions, they convinced her to return home.

But Jackson didn’t stay long.

Looking out for her friends: She felt guilty leaving her friends behind and worried they wouldn’t survive without her. On the streets, she'd look out for her friends, giving them jackets and food, she said.

“I don’t find it OK to sit there and make judgments if you don’t know a person,” she said, describing the attitude many people take toward the unhoused.

This fall, Jackson changed her phone number, which at various points she shared with her boyfriend. Since a few weeks before Christmas, she hasn’t been seen at Union Evangelical or the McDonald’s. A few acquaintances said they have seen her but haven't spoken with her.

After months of speaking with The York Dispatch, she simply disappeared.

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