The phone rings during Michael Lee’s overnight shift at Avenues, a homeless shelter in north Minneapolis. Lee can hear the lump in the teen’s throat as she asks if there is room for her to stay the night. He apologizes several times and tells her there is not.
“It happens every day, almost all day,” Lee said. “It was jarring for me on how often we would turn youth away from the shelter.”
Lee is a youth counselor at the nonprofit Avenues for Homeless Youth, one of many organizations that have come together to build the Twin Cities’ first suburban youth homeless shelter, in Brooklyn Park. Last Thursday, with a ceremonious turning of the dirt, project participants took the first step in the final phase of the long process.
In about five months, the grassy plot of land where they assembled will be the home of Brooklyn Avenues, a 12-bed shelter and transitional housing program for people ages 16 to 21.
The community effort began about four years ago, when Brooklyn Park saw an increase in homeless youth and sex-trafficking in the northwest suburbs.
During the Thursday groundbreaking, Mayor Jeff Lunde expressed “immense relief” at knowing the city is one step closer to getting teens off the streets.
“I was always paranoid of one more wrinkle or something else. The fact that we, symbolically, put shovels to the ground means a lot,” he said.
The ceremony began with a poem by Lee about the phone call, continued with comments by representatives of all parties involved, and ended with a group photo to commemorate the joint efforts.
Deb Loon, executive director of Avenues for Homeless Youth, said Brooklyn Park is a role model for other suburbs and hailed the fact that many groups are involved in this project, including the city and faith, nonprofit and civic communities.
“We didn’t go to Brooklyn Park,” Loon said. “It really started from the community and they came to us.”
Merna Kingsley, 85, of Brooklyn Park, is an example of community input. She raised more than $2,000 from people with limited income to help fund the shelter. “We are a ‘throw away’ type of society,” Kingsley said. “I will not allow us to throw away kids.”
Brooklyn Avenues’ 5,000 square feet will include shared bathrooms, staff offices, a commercial kitchen, youth computer lab, and living and dining rooms. The average stay could be three to six months, but may be as long as 18 months.
The Brooklyn Park Economic Development Authority is spending about $950,000 to design and build the shelter. The city will lease it to Avenues for Homeless Youth for $1 per year; the organization will operate the shelter and transitional housing program.
According to the state Department of Human Services, Minnesota has about 120 emergency shelter beds, mostly in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and about 600 beds for transitional housing. Youth homelessness is a growing problem in the state, and although homeless teens in the suburbs often go undetected, Lee said, the problem happens everywhere — not just in downtown.
Lee said two-thirds of the youth homeless population are fleeing from some form of abuse. Others come from the foster care system or are dealing with undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues.
”Homeless youth is an invisible population,” Lee said. “These new beds are huge, but there are still hundreds of youth out there. This is the beginning of a lot of work we still have to do.”