Over the past two years, funding for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act supported shelters, drop-in centers, community outreach, and supportive, transitional housing for runaway and homeless youth. Social service agencies received $1 million in one-time funding under the Act for the 2008-2009 biennium. Now the money is set to run out.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced legislation this session that would appropriate $8 million in renewable funding. Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s budget proposal does not include any funding for the Act.
Advocates for homeless youth say that without this funding, agencies will have to scale back already meager services, forcing more youth onto the streets.
“This is not the time to sack the most vulnerable people in the state,” Susan Phillips of Lutheran Social Services’ Metro Homeless Youth Programs, said.
As many as 1,800 youth are homeless every night in Minnesota, but there are fewer than 50 beds designated for homeless youth in the Twin Cities. Most towns in Greater Minnesota have no substantial homeless youth programs, leading many rural youth to move to the Twin Cities, where they are particularly vulnerable, advocates said.
Dibble said he doubts that the legislature will appropriate the full amount or add additional money to the base in the middle of a fiscal crisis. “That’s the reality of the meanness of the budget that we’re dealing with,” he said. “It took ten years to get to this spot, after millions of dollars of tax breaks for the wealthy.”
In the meantime, the Department of Human Services and state legislators have been looking closely at federal stimulus dollars to determine if a portion can be used for runaway and homeless youth services, Dibble said.
The Bridge for Runaway Youth, a non-profit agency that provides housing and resources for youth in crisis, already faces downsizing due to lack of funding. Without new funding, the agency may have to cut the number of subsidized apartments for homeless youth, the Bridge’s Merci Rocha said.
Heather Huseby, executive director of YouthLink, a social service agency serving homeless youth, said the organization “may need to look at reducing our hours and not meeting as many youth needs.”
According to Rocha, the House Housing Finance Committee’s omnibus bill included $238,000 in base funding for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act for FY2010/2011 and $357,000 in base funding for FY2012/2013.
Advocates face opposition from lawmakers determined to avoid new expenses in the middle of a budget crisis. Some legislators have also voiced concerns about whether homeless youth services are the best way to help runaway youth. In a recent hearing, Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, said that youth shelters could provide a “pressure vent” that allows teenagers to escape resolvable conflicts with their parents.
Advocates disagree vehemently. “This is not about, ‘I got into a fight with my mom about going to the mall, so I ran away,’” Rocha said.
A 2006 Wilder Foundation study found that 63 percent of homeless youth cannot live with their families because of severe conflict or abuse. Over 70 percent of homeless youth come from an out-of-home placement, including group homes, foster care or corrections. Seven percent have been kicked out due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Grace Forsberg said she does not even want to think about where she would be without the services she received from Avenues for Homeless Youth, a Minneapolis-based social services agency. Forsberg, 19, ran away from home due to family violence. “I was scared all the time,” she said. “It was very hard for me to even focus on school. It was terrible.”
After she left home, Forsberg stayed with a local pastor, who referred her to Avenues for Homeless Youth. She stayed in the shelter program for eight months before moving into transitional housing last September. Now she spends her time looking for a job and taking classes in office administration. In the fall, she hopes to enroll at MCTC. “I am very blessed,” she said, but added that she worries about how other homeless youth will cope with fewer resources.
“When an adult thinks about the homeless, they don’t think it’s possible that it could start with a young person,” Forsberg said. “But it happens all the time.”
Madeleine Baran is a freelance journalist, specializing in labor and poverty issues. Her articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Dollars & Sense, Clamor, The New Standard, and other publications.