Homeless youth: a hidden population

Project would create housing for homeless youth in west metro 

by Lisa Kaczke

Sun CURRENT Newspapers


They sleep in Porta Potties at construction sites because the doors lock, or they move from friend’s couch to friend’s couch.

They spend their time inside at libraries, using the phones to try to find a place to go when the library closes.

Young people become homeless for a variety of reasons, sometimes because their family can no longer financially support them, because of their sexual orientation or, more often, because they are being physically or sexually abused at home.

“The streets are safer than home,” explained Lee Blon, executive director of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative.

There are an estimated 200 to 300 homeless youth or youth at risk of becoming homeless living in the western suburbs, but they remain invisible, a status quo that the young people work hard at keeping, Blon said.

Homeless youth don’t have a place they can go in the western suburbs to find shelter. The only option for them is to make their way to Minneapolis, where there’s already a shortage of shelters and they may not find a place to stay, Blon said.

“Young people are homeless because we allow it,” Blon said, quoting an Edina Community Lutheran Church member that resonated with her.

Beacon and ECLC are partnering to build housing that would provide support services and refuge  specifically for people younger than 21 in the western suburbs who are homeless and unaccompanied by an adult. The emphasis of the proposed project is to create a long-term solution for the young people rather than a temporary fix for one night.

They’re beginning to search for a building site, educating organizations in the suburbs to expand support for the project and invite other religious entities to come on board.

Suburban residents think homelessness only occurs in Minneapolis, but the reality is that homeless suburbanites are having to go to Minneapolis to find the services, ECLC Mission and Ministry Developer Lauren Morse-Wendt said.

“It’s a lot more widespread than we think it is,” she said.


Experiencing homelessness

Homeless youth unaccompanied by adults are more at risk than adults because they are usually leaving a bad home situation but don’t yet have the adult skills to survive on their own.

Seventeen percent of unaccompanied homeless youth reported trading sex for shelter, food, clothing or other essentials. Twenty-one percent reported being physically or sexually attacked while homeless, according to Wilder Research, which conducted a one-night homeless count in Minnesota on Oct. 25, 2012.

Wilder Research’s homeless count found 1,151 unaccompanied youth under 21 who were homeless in Minnesota. More than half were in the Twin Cities metro area.

The number counted was likely lower than the reality. Wilder estimates 4,080 unaccompanied people younger than 21 are homeless on any given night in Minnesota, according to its homelessness report released in September. Of those, an estimated 2,211 are younger than 17.

“Youth who are homeless and on their own tend to be some of the most difficult to find of those experiencing homelessness,” according to the report. “Homeless youth are less likely than adults to stay in shelters, more often staying temporarily with friends or in places not intended for habitation … Compared to homeless adults and families, homeless youth have fewer shelters available and fewer legal provisions for housing and other basic needs.”

Thirty-nine percent of the youth weren’t staying in a shelter on the night of Wilder’s count, while 23 percent were in an emergency shelter, 36 percent were in transitional housing and 2 percent were at battered women’s shelters, according to the report.

Additionally, teenagers and young adults are at the stage in life when they want to be the same as their peers and fit in, leading to secrecy about their homelessness, Blon explained. When teenagers know someone who is homeless, it’s unlikely they will tell anyone about it.

In Wilder’s homeless count, 84 percent of the unaccompanied homeless youth reported having regular contact with a trusted adult.

A teenager may tell an adult they had a fight with their parent – a typical teenage experience – but what they’re not telling adults is that was bigger than just a fight over the car keys, she said.

“Sometimes adults are not hearing what is going on,” she said.

Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative and Edina Community Lutheran Church are partnering to build a long-term supportive housing for homeless youth in the west metro suburbs modeled after Beacon’s Nicollet Square in south Minneapolis, pictured, which includes 42 apartments with retail space on the first floor. The housing would provide stable safe housing and support services to allow homeless youth to get on their feet. (Submitted photo)
Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative and Edina Community Lutheran Church are partnering to build a long-term supportive housing for homeless youth in the west metro suburbs modeled after Beacon’s Nicollet Square in south Minneapolis, pictured, which includes 42 apartments with retail space on the first floor. The housing would provide stable safe housing and support services to allow homeless youth to get on their feet. (Submitted photo)


Some also don’t tell adults they are homeless out of fear they’ll be placed in foster care if they’re younger than 18, she said. Twenty-two percent of young people are homeless in the first year after leaving foster care, Blon said.

“Homeless youth on their own often come from troubled backgrounds and face significant challenges. These include physical and mental health issues and histories of abuse and other trauma,” according to the report. “A majority have a parent who has been incarcerated. Over one-quarter are parents themselves, and one-fifth have children with them.”

Being told to leave or getting locked out of their home was the leading main cause of homeless reported by unaccompanied youth. Youth also reported fighting frequently with parents or guardians, being unwilling to live by parents’ rules, parents’ use of drugs or alcohol, and the family losing their housing as main causes.

Fifteen percent of homeless youth who identified as gay, bisexual or transgender reported it was main cause of their homelessness, and 29 percent reported it as a contributing factor, according to the report.


Long-term housing

The proposed project would be a building with 30 to 40 apartment units to provide young people with a stable home while they finish high school or work toward earning a GED and get themselves on their feet.

Streetworks Collaborative began giving out tarps when it ran out of tents to give young people who didn’t have a place to sleep in the western suburbs. An Edina resident heard the story and then saw the tarps from Highway 169, Blon said

The ECLC is committed to social justice and they realized housing for homeless families was needed, but it wasn’t solving the problem, Morse-Wendt said. They realized there weren’t any organizations that provided shelter specifically for young people in the suburbs.

The church began considering organizations with whom to partner to create long-term housing for young people and found Beacon.

Beacon has a similar project called Nicollet Square in south Minneapolis. Nicollet Square has 42 apartments for people ages 18-22 and provides support for the young people. They’re using Nicollet Square as a model of what they hope to build, Morse-Wendt said.

That model would enable young people to move into a space that can become their own, and provide job training, services and safety, Morse-Wendt said. Blon added that it also provides social services to the youth to deal with the deeper issues and trauma they’ve experienced in their lives.

The search is underway for a building site in a first-ring suburb like St. Louis Park, Edina or Bloomington. The site needs to be safe while being near public transportation and employment opportunities, she explained.

ECLC began reaching out to congregations in the western suburbs. Several have come on board, she said. They’re beginning to reach out to school districts, libraries, city councils and organizations like the YMCA and Rotary to partner and help raise awareness about the issue.

Once a site is chosen, it could take two to three years to find the resources, as well as both private and public funding, to build.

The project expected to cost $7 million to $9 million to build, with $800,000 needed annually to cover rent and provide the services, Blon said.

People wishing to support the project can tour the Nicollet Square housing, host presentations on the project, donate to Beacon, urge city officials to support the housing or advocate for public funding for developments like the proposed project, Blon and Morse-Wendt suggest.

Info: beaconinterfaith.org/YouthHousing, Lauren Morse-Wendt at Edina Community Lutheran Church at 952-926-3808, and Beacon Congregational Partnership Organizer Allison Johnson at 651-789-6260 ext. 214 or [email protected]


Contact Lisa Kaczke at [email protected]