A Refuge for Homeless Youth

By Shane Lueck August 21, 2014

Categories: Causes, Featured - Home Page, Our Affairs

In a rare suburban venture aimed at tackling a growing statewide problem, city officials, churches, civic groups and others are working together in Brooklyn Park to open a shelter for homeless teens. The facility will be the first suburban youth shelter with emergency beds, as well as the more common transitional housing.

Funding for the project mostly came from the city of Brooklyn Park itself. This spring, the Brooklyn Park Economic Development Authority board unanimously approved using up to $800,000 in excess tax-increment funds to build or convert a quadplex into a 12-bed shelter. Brooklyn Park has an agreement with Avenues for Homeless Youth, a nonprofit agency that runs a shelter in north Minneapolis, to operate the new shelter, said Deb Loon, executive director. She said Avenues has won a $152,000 Homeless Youth Act state grant and has secured $55,000 in other donations for first-year operating costs.

Minnesota has 120 emergency shelter beds (nearly all in Minneapolis and St. Paul) and about 600 beds for transitional housing with longer term, supportive services for homeless youth, but that is nowhere near enough. The most recent statewide homeless count, by the Wilder Foundation in October 2012, found 1,151 unaccompanied minors ages 18 to 21 who were homeless, about 30 percent more than in 2006. Of those, 674 were in the metro area. The conservative count includes only those found in shelters and elsewhere, but officials believe many others go undetected. Wilder reported that 25 percent of the youth said they had been turned away by a full shelter in the previous three months.

Avenues for Homeless Youth operates five housing programs for homeless youth. The Brooklyn Park shelter and transitional housing program, aptly called Brooklyn Avenues, broke ground on August 14, set to open its doors in early 2015. The space will be leased to Avenues for Homeless Youth for $1 per year to operate the program.

Brooklyn Avenues will be a large home in Brooklyn Park where 12 young people from the northwest suburbs who are experiencing homelessness will be able to live and access the intensive supports they need to move onto stable living.  “Like our Minneapolis program, the youth will be ages 16 through 20; the building is designed to look and feel like a large home (5,000 square feet),” Loon says. “It will have 12 small, individual bedrooms each with a twin bed, small desk, and closet, as well as a commercial kitchen, living room, dining room, youth computer lab, staff offices, counseling room, and multi-purpose room for group activities.”

The new building will allow Avenues to meet its goal of getting homeless youth off the streets and out of harm’s way, but enable them to stay within or close to their home community. Brooklyn Avenues will provide homeless youth a safe and home-like place to stabilize, address their crisis needs, begin healing from their trauma, build trusting relationships, and start addressing their long-term goals.

But with such drastic statistics regarding the mass numbers of homeless youth, why would the new facility only accommodate 12 beds? There are several reasons for sizing the program this way. Perhaps the most realistic reason is budgetary. Staffing needs increase as the bed numbers increase and it would also require a larger facility. With an operating budget estimated at $600,000 as it is, a larger facility is an unreasonable expectation. Instead, Loon says, “We would like to see other suburban communities follow Brooklyn Park’s lead and enter into partnership with Avenues or other homeless youth-serving agencies to create similar programs for homeless youth from their area, so those young people also can find support within or very near their home communities.”

The youth are referred to Avenues by school counselors, police, street and school outreach workers, and numerous other nonprofit and public partners, including faith-based organizations.  With an average length of stay expected to range around four months (but could be up to 18 months, if needed), their stay at Brooklyn Avenues is intended to be short-term or transitional, but Loon says her team’s commitment to them for continued support is long-term. The program is designed to be unique to each young person’s needs and circumstances, so the stay will range from very short to over a year.

“When a youth moves out of the program, our case management team stays with them, to the degree they need and want continued support,” Loon says. “We also work very hard to connect youth with other resources and adults in their community, so they have a circle of support to guide them as they move into adulthood.”

When youth arrive at Avenues, the first priority is to allow them to settle in, stabilize, and begin to build a trusting relationship with staff and volunteers. First, all basic needs are met, so they no longer need to worry about food and shelter. They will have access to a personal bedroom and shared bathroom, three meals per day, personal hygiene supplies, laundry facilities, clothing, and transportation assistance.

As Avenues staff identifies the youths’ crisis needs, they will strive to be met through the professional staff and connections with partners. These include addressing physical and mental health as well as legal issues (including connecting youth for help with immigration issues). Once these needs are met and youth feel stable and can start looking forward, they will have access to a full-range of supportive services to guide them through setting and pursuing goals for their futures.  The program includes case management, family counseling, education support, employment and job training support, and independent living skills training and practice.

Although the new space won’t be specific to GLBT homeless youth, Avenues also offers a GLBT Host Home Program, supporting GLBT homeless youth in supportive, volunteer homes throughout the Twin Cities area. Described as “outside the system,” the GLBT program is truly community-based and volunteer-driven. “All participants—youth and hosts—come to the programs on a volunteer basis; youth are never ‘placed’ and hosts are not compensated,” Loon says. “Hosts go through a rigorous screening and training process and youth are referred by folks who know them well. But the process of matching youth and hosts is actually youth-driven; it is the young person who reads the prospective hosts files and decides who they would like to meet.”

The host home program recognizes that young people, especially GLBT youth of color, experience systemic barriers as they live their lives.  Many of them have had mainstream systems experience that has not served them well in their lives. The host home programs are intentionally designed to give youth the opportunity (often, for the first time in their lives) to determine their future, but to do so in a supportive environment.

Loon says, “The wise people who created our host home model visualized a program that helped the community take care of and provide non-paternalistic support to its young people, as opposed to social services agencies deciding a course of action for young people.”

In addition to the unique feature of allowing youth to choose their own destinies, Avenues’ three host home programs are 100 percent supported by the community and do not seek government funding. “These are very efficient programs, given the contribution of home and food the hosts provide on a volunteer basis,” Loon says. “Each program has a manager who does community outreach, host recruitment, training and support, and coordination with the youths’ case managers.”

So, why have a program unique to GLBT youth? The GLBT Host Home Program was created at a time when youth shelters and housing programs recognized they were failing to provide competent support to queer youth, who made up a large percentage of the homeless youth population. According to Loon, this was driven mostly by their GLBTQ staff with help from community advocates.  However, GLBT-run organizations at the time did not have the infrastructure to create shelter or housing programs, so the community decided it made more sense to have a homeless youth organization develop a GLBTQ-specific program.

Homeless youth programs today are better at providing culturally competent support for GLBT homeless youth.  But the GLBT Host Home Program still has an important place in the community. They also have the opportunity to find support outside of licensed programs and systems that may have failed them historically. For the youth who participate in the program, they experience living in a home with caring adults who accept them fully for who they are and share their resources without expectations.

The reality is that GLBT youth homelessness is about half due to family conflict that grows out of lack of support around sexual orientation and gender expression/identity (commonly called “family rejection”) and half due to the many reasons all youth face homelessness: poverty, family crisis, mental illness, abuse, and more.

“Every youth’s story is unique, which is why we need a myriad of programs and opportunities that are youth-centered in the community,” Loon says. “The majority of GLBTQ youth experiencing homelessness are youth of color, mostly African-American, so issues related to racial and economic disparities are at the core of their homelessness. We would like to have more hosts of color in the program.”

For Loon, who originally joined Avenues as a consultant and interim executive director, she found her passion. Loon planned on staying 9-12 months. “About three years into my ‘interim’ status, I finally admitted I was staying,” she says. “It is such a privilege to watch young people move from fear and survival, to regaining their smile and sense of self-worth, and then to moving on to achieving their goals. These young people are incredible, in spite of what they have experienced and faced. They are resilient, strong, wise beyond belief, and funny. I love watching their personalities emerge while they live with us. And these youth are able to move forward with what really amounts to very little support. They have tremendous potential that we, as a community, cannot afford to squander.”

To discover the various opportunities presented by Avenues for Homeless Youth or to get involved, go to www.avenuesforyouth.org.

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