Outside in brutal cold, homeless youths hear about shelters from social media

Extreme temperatures in recent days demonstrate the need for more emergency shelter beds for homeless youths, advocates say.

Fearful of the effects of the life-threatening cold on unaccompanied youth — who often choose sleeping outside rather than sleeping in adult shelters — Minneapolis authorities last weekend set up an emergency warming center at a downtown youth service center and outfitted it with 23 cots through last night.

As news of the center spread by word of mouth and social and news media, the beds filled.

At least two young men had been sleeping outside in double-digit arctic temperatures — one in Powderhorn Park protected only by blankets and jackets and another on secluded public property in a tent, said Heather Huseby, executive director of YouthLink, the youth service organization that provided space for overnight guests.

“Both were extremely cold when they came to the center. One had white fingertips,’’ she said, though neither needed medical care.

Frigid temperatures have caused at least two deaths in Minnesota and Wisconsin and dozens of cases of frostbite. Organizations serving the homeless around the state have stayed open around the clock to keep people safe this past week.

Community Sketchbook, reported and written by Cynthia Boyd, focuses on the economic and social challenges facing communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, and how people are trying to address them. It is made possible by sponsorship support from The Minneapolis Foundation. Community Sketchbook articles may be republished or distributed, in print or online, with credit to MinnPost and the foundation.

Extra beds

Realizing the extreme weather danger, Mikkel Beckman, who heads up the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County, took action. He contacted the county’s emergency management team to pull together and deliver beds to the youth facility at 4100 N. 12th St., not far from the Twins’ stadium in downtown Minneapolis. YouthLink normally closes the doors to its Youth Opportunity Center program at 9 p.m.

Beckman said authorities have been working to solve the problem of a shortage of emergency beds for persons in their teens to early 20s who say they don’t feel safe staying in adult shelters. At least 15 additional shelter beds are needed for youth, he said.

Huseby said the young people who come to YouthLink are forced into homelessness.

“These aren’t run-aways. These are people who have escaped from abusive situations,’’ from foster care, families and gang violence, she said.

Currently, there are 90 emergency beds for homeless youth in the Twin Cities, though the need has grown. A recent survey of homeless persons in Minnesota tallied 10,000 homeless people any given night, with 46 percent of them 21 or younger.

400-450 unaccompanied homeless youth

Analysts estimate that translates into 400 to 450 unaccompanied homeless youth every night in the Twin Cities area, Huseby said, though many stay with friends or acquaintances to hide their homelessness.

On Tuesday night, 293 families and 791 single adults slept in emergency shelters around Hennepin County as well as unaccompanied youth, Beckman said. A count of the “street homeless” at the beginning of winter revealed 141 persons living outside in Hennepin County, he said.

The count reflects an 8 percent increase in families in shelter from 2012 to 2013, forcing the opening of overflow shelters, Beckman said.

“Shelter is not the solution to homelessness, but it is a need on the way to finding a permanent solution,’’ Beckman said.

In December state authorities introduced “Heading Home: Minnesota’s Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness,” an effort supported by Gov. Mark Dayton and the commissioners from 11 state agencies and their staffs who make up the Interagency Council on Homelessness. Their goal is to prevent and end homelessness for families with children and unaccompanied youth by 2020.

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    Cynthia Boyd's picture
    Cynthia Boyd

    Cynthia Boyd writes Community Sketchbook for MinnPost.