John Larsen never had any experience with a homeless person before he and his partner, Mike Stewart, took a young woman into their Minneapolis home almost three years ago.

It wasn't easy. The teenager had the frenetic energy of someone used to living life on the fly. Larsen said that at the start he and Stewart "were just making space and dinners."

But the three became closer as they experienced what Larsen calls "a slow thaw to a more stable environment."

Larsen and Stewart opened their home through a host home program for GLBT youths. Now advocates want to replicate that program for all homeless youths in Twin Cities suburbs. This month, meetings in Bloomington, Brooklyn Center, Eden Prairie and Hopkins will explain the program in hopes of finding host homes for the kids.

The program is not foster care; people who open their homes to kids are not paid. And the homeless youths have some control over the process, because they get to interview potential host homes and decide whom they want to live with.

"It's not always easy, but sometimes magic really develops between the youth and the hosts," said Deb Loon, executive director of Avenues for Homeless Youth, the Minneapolis nonprofit that runs the GLBT host home program.

"Sometimes they have a lifelong relationship; other times, it doesn't work out. But there always seem to be people coming forward from the community saying, 'I'm ready to make this commitment.'"

Suburban host homes

At any time, 100 to 150 kids are homeless in the west metro area, said Lydia Kihm, executive director of Teens Alone in Hopkins.

There are no shelters for homeless youths in the western suburbs, and Kihm said that sending them to the limited beds available in Minneapolis can be counterproductive. The wait for a bed in a youth shelter in Minneapolis can be up to a year, she said. The city can be intimidating to suburban kids, and it is far from schools and workplaces that they often want nearby.

"Homeless kids in the suburbs are better hidden than urban kids; they do a lot of couch-hopping," she said. "But we know that at some point the couches run out. ...

"If we hit the lottery, we [would] buy permanent brick and mortar in the western suburbs. But when we got an estimate that it would cost $8.2 million, we thought about that for about 14 seconds."

Instead, numerous agencies, schools, churches and other groups formed the Suburban Host Home Action Council to create temporary suburban shelters for young people.

Kihm said the group decided that a host home program would be the most economical option. The council had a local model in the Avenue for Homeless Youth's GLBT host home program. That group will hire a coordinator for the new suburban host home program, which is supported by a three-year United Way grant and other community fundraising.

The hope is to have 10 families housing youths at any one time, with 10 more in the pipeline, Kihm said. Ideally, host homes would be scattered throughout the western suburbs so kids can stay near their hometowns.

The program's focus will be on 18- to 20-year-olds, though younger people could be involved if their parents authorized it, said Rob Ward, program director for Teens Alone. Adults who want to offer a place in their home will undergo interviews, background checks, a home inspection and will need references and recommendations.

The host home would provide daily basics, but youths would get help with things like a clothing allowance. Hosts will undergo two days of intensive training, hold monthly group meetings and get a support person to contact about issues.

Case managers who are working with homeless youths will have to refer young people to the program. They must be working on personal goals like staying in school or getting a job, and their mental and physical health will be assessed.

Way station to adulthood

Ward said the program gives youths a safe place to sleep night after night and a tie to a caring adult who is more of an equal than a parent or mentor.

The host "provides food and shelter and whatever else they can afford," Kihm said. "Many of them are empty-nesters. ... People love to think they'll make a difference."

In most cases, the goal is for young people to stay in the host home for no more than 18 months.

"We're really talking about forming life skills, work skills and education skills," Ward said. "This is a way station on the way from homelessness to your adult life. If they want to continue the relationship after that, it's informal."

That's what happened to Larsen and Stewart. Larsen said the first few months were "really crazy" because the young woman they were paired with had so many issues.

"But after a few months, she really took charge of her life," Larsen said. "Her first semester in college, she had three A's and one A-minus."

The young woman stayed with them for 10 months, then left for college. Now a sophomore, she sees her parents but calls Larsen and Stewart "my gay dads" and stays at their house over the summer and at holidays.

Larsen, who does a lot of volunteering, said being a host home has given him "a greater sense of community and togetherness and some sense of family."

The young woman they took into their home, he said, is "a leader in her community and with her peers, and she brought an incredible gift to us in her ability to trust and her willingness to share herself open-heartedly. It's a remarkable experience."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380