Advocates for homeless youth seek $8 million


When Project OffStreets, a youth drop-in center in Minneapolis, asked teens who stopped by January 25 where they would spend the night, 56 were not going home to bed. Either they didn’t know where they would go or said they would be walking the streets or hanging out at Hard Times Café in Minneapolis.

Reports like that persuaded state Rep. Karen Clark to take action when Gov. Tim Pawlenty failed to propose funding for housing runaway and homeless youth in his budget this year. Clark introduced a bill to allot $8 million help house homeless youth.

“[Pawlenty] has left them out of the budget, out in the cold literally,” Clark said.

In 2003 there were an estimated 22,410 runaway and homeless youth in Minnesota, according to the most recent Wilder Research survey on homelessness. That year, funding for runaway and homeless youth programs was cut 27 percent and 136 transitional and supportive housing units were lost statewide, according to Lutheran Social Services. Since then, there has not been an increase in state funding for the population, Clark said.

“One thing we know is that after poverty, the second leading indicator of why an adult is homeless is if they were homeless as a child. So if we want to end homelessness, which is an initiative of Gov. Pawlenty and the president, we need to decrease the number of homeless youth,” said Monica Nilsson, director of community development at the Hearth Connection, which works to end homelessness in Minnesota.

In 2006 the legislature passed the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act that promised to expand the definition of homeless youth to include “couch hoppers” (youth who stay with various friends and family members), do a report on runaway and homeless youth in Minnesota and define the care and support needed from the state. Although Nilsson hopes that Clark’s bill providing $8 million will pass, she worries that other bills aimed at preventing and ending homelessness may take precedence.

“There are a lot of very good requests in family homeless prevention legislation legislature,” she said. “I would be very excited if we got [$8 million], but we are cautiously optimistic because there are other initiatives.”

These initiatives include $21 million to expand and preserve affordable housing that would fund more buildings to be built in areas where jobs are. Another proposed bill would allot $15 million to the ending homelessness initiative started in 2003. This would provide 1,200 housing opportunities through providing rental assistance and by stabilizing housing for the mentally ill and aiding families in crisis situations.

Nilsson said that the reason there needs to be a separate bill for homeless and runaway youth is because they have different needs than a homeless family or an adult who is homeless. Minneapolis organizations like YouthLink and The Bridge serve only runaway and homeless youth. These organizations not only house youth, but also teach them life skills, provide family reunification and help them get to their home school.

“It seems to me to be such a crucial service,” Clark said. “If we have homeless youth on the street and they don’t [get] help in 48 hours someone else will find them and they will be the ones to exploit them,” Clark said.

The Bridge for Runaway Youth takes up almost an entire block of Emerson Avenue in Uptown and offers case management services for anyone who drops in. Independent living skills coordinator Holly Koch said they have a waiting list for their transitional housing and hold a lottery every night for their emergency shelter program. The eight to 12 youths in the lottery who don’t get an emergency shelter bed get bus tokens before they walk out the door, Koch said.

“For all we hear about youth in gangs and in violence, what kind of message are we sending if we are giving a youth bus tokens at 10:30 at night?” Nilsson said.

Although the majority of its funding comes from private donors and United Way, the Bridge’s budget was cut 15 percent in 2003. The Avenues for homeless youth in Minneapolis saw even deeper budget cuts, Koch said.

“[The cuts] eliminate services for youth who need it,” Koch said.

One of those youth, who asked to remain unidentified, lives in one of the eight transitional housing units at the Bridge. After moving to Minnesota from Mississippi one year ago, the 20-year-old became homeless after his stepbrother, with whom he was living, moved to Duluth and left him behind. Similar to many runaway and homeless youth, he said he doesn’t feel welcome at home and would’ve been on the streets if it weren’t for the Bridge.

“There is no one I can go to. Other people have other family members, but it’s not like that for me,” he said. “I never thought I would have to be in a situation like that.”

Staff at the Bridge have helped him fill out forms to apply for college and financial aid, save money and organize his life. As he awaits a response from colleges he applied to, he is working full-time and plans on moving out of the Bridge in April.

The Bridge is raising money to expand its program. The new facility would more than double their transitional housing units and include a drop-in center with a computer lab, a clinic and an emergency shelter area.

“We need more shelters, beds and dedicated services,” Clark said.

The $8 million for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act would go to expanding current programs and creating new ones, like the Bridge, Clark said. Because most shelters for runaway and homeless youth are in the metro area, Clark would like to see some of the money go to programs outside the Twin Cities. That would make it easier for youth from those areas to get to their home school and be in a place they feel comfortable.

“Youth [from outside the metro] do not want to be in Minneapolis. They are afraid to be here,” she said.

Clark said passing the bill still won’t eliminate the problem of homeless and runaway youth, but it would be a step in the right direction.

“We aren’t kidding ourselves that this would take care of the problem,” Clark said. “We are trying to help [youth] go back to families, but if that isn’t safe we want to send them to transitional housing and be able to go to school.”