In a rare suburban venture aimed at tackling a growing statewide problem, city officials, churches, civic groups and others are working together in Brooklyn Park to open a shelter for homeless teens.
The facility will be the first suburban youth shelter with emergency beds, as well as the more common transitional housing, said Lucinda Jesson, commissioner of the state Department of Human Services.
"It is very unusual for that many agencies to work together," said Casey Schleisman, a senior manager at Catholic Charities' Hope Street youth shelter in Minneapolis.
"Brooklyn Park is taking ownership of the issue. It could be a model for other cities."
Last week, the Brooklyn Park Economic Development Authority board unanimously approved using up to $800,000 in excess tax-increment funds to build or convert a quadplex into a 12-bed shelter, said Mayor Jeff Lunde, who sits on the board that also includes City Council members. Final approval is expected in mid-April.
"This project is a great example of collaboration in providing services to these youth to get them back on track with their lives," Jesson said.
Minnesota has 120 emergency shelter beds (nearly all in Minneapolis and St. Paul) and about 600 beds for transitional housing with longer term, supportive services for homeless youth, Jesson said. That's not enough, she added.
The most recent statewide homeless count, by the Wilder Foundation on Oct. 25, 2012, found 1,151 unaccompanied minors and those ages 18 to 21 who were homeless, about 30 percent more than in 2006. Of those, 674 were in the metro area. The conservative count includes only those found in shelters and elsewhere, but officials believe many others go undetected. Wilder reported that 25 percent of the youth said they had been turned away by a full shelter in the previous three months.
Brooklyn Park is partnering with the Brooklyn Area Ministerial Association and others to raise about $600,000 for annual program costs to run the 24-hour shelter, Lunde said. He said Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center and New Hope have allocated $18,500 in federal community development grants toward operating costs.
"I think we will get it done," Lunde said. "It is very needed."
Brooklyn Park has an agreement with Avenues for Homeless Youth, a nonprofit agency that runs a shelter in north Minneapolis, to operate the new shelter, said Deb Loon, agency executive director. She said Avenues has won a $152,000 Homeless Youth Act state grant and has secured $55,000 in other donations for first-year operating costs.
How it all began
The shelter had its genesis in early 2011 when church and city leaders were surprised to hear from police and school officials that the northwest area had several hundred homeless kids couch-hopping with friends or finding less savory places to sleep, said the Rev. Rachel Morey, pastor of Brooklyn Mosaic United Methodist Church in Brooklyn Center.
She said youth are too ashamed to admit they are homeless. "They go to incredible measures to hide the fact they have no place to do laundry or sleep at night."
Meanwhile, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center police discovered a local sex ring preying on young girls, Lunde said. Morey and Lunde cited surveys that found during the first 48 hours of leaving home, a large majority of homeless youth were propositioned by pimps.
"By not caring for homeless kids, we are just creating a victim pool for people engaged in the underage sex trade," Morey said.
Besides soliciting funds for the shelter, the churches worked with the local YMCA and Avenues for Homeless Youth in north Minneapolis to train nine host homes providing short-term youth housing. Three churches provide housing in their buildings on a rotating basis, she said. More than 20 churches have helped or committed funds for the shelter, she said.
Loon said the new shelter will be modeled after Avenues, a three-story building with 21 beds and several staff to counsel residents and help them find jobs and housing. Youth can stay up to 18 months, and a full-time aftercare worker helps them after they leave, she said.
When residents get a job, a "rent savings plan" is set up and they must deposit 30 percent of their pay in the account, Loon said. Their savings go toward the deposit and other expenses for their first apartment.
"We address any trauma and medical needs and get them to a place where they can live safely in an apartment," Loon said. "The kids all share in the chores. They sweep and clean the bathrooms and do their own laundry."
One former Avenues client is 21-year-old Winni, who asked that her last name not be used. She said relatives brought her here at age 8 from Liberia. She had disagreements with her aunt and ran away at 18. She spent more than a year at Avenues and eventually got a cashier's job at Sears. She saved enough to move out about two years ago.
"Then I got my place," she said, flashing bright eyes and a matching smile. "Now I am a shift supervisor at CVS," she said. Last fall she earned her high school diploma and hopes to go to college to become a nurse.
At Avenues, "I learned a lot of life skills. … I was young and didn't understand about getting along with people," Winni said. "We are all hurt. And hurt people hurt other people.
"I also learned that school was really, really important."