More are reaching out to homeless youths

As ranks of homeless youth grow, more services are tailored to them.

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Chris Jacobz, 20, left, played chess with Johnnie Robinson, 19, as they waited for dinner at the Minneapolis drop-in center managed by YouthLink.

Photo: Megan Tan, Star Tribune

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Three months ago, Brady Jeunesse was a payroll manager with a spare bedroom in the suburbs and Josh was a Minneapolis teenager without a home.

Today, they share Jeunesse's home and a budding friendship, thanks to a new "host home program" that helps homeless youth get back on their feet. The program, now in suburban Hennepin County, will be launched in Minneapolis this fall and is being explored in Ramsey County.

It is among a mini-boom in services underway for Minnesota's homeless youth, an often invisible segment of the homeless population that continues to grow.

Over roughly the past year, for example, a 42-unit apartment complex with services for homeless youth, Nicollet Square, opened in Minneapolis and a similar project is being planned in St. Paul.

The Salvation Army opened an emergency shelter for youth in St. Paul, and Catholic Charities expanded its youth beds in Minneapolis. The two main drop-in centers for homeless youth in Minneapolis and St. Paul expanded hours and services. Meanwhile, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota is awaiting federal funding to build out its youth homeless services in Brainerd, Mankato, Willmar and Rochester.

"For years homeless youth were grouped with single adults by researchers and policymakers," said Laura Kadwell, state director of Heading Home Minnesota, a public-private partnership to end homelessness in Minnesota.

"Now they are coming into their own as an identifiable [homeless] population with their own unique challenges."

Growing problem

On any given night, an estimated 2,500 young people between the ages of 16 and 21 are homeless, according to a 2009 survey conducted by Wilder Research, based in St. Paul. Shelter leaders say the numbers are higher today. Catholic Charities' Hope Street shelter, for example, reports turning away 425 callers during the most recent quarter this year, compared to 375 last year.

Likewise, the Youth Opportunity Center near downtown Minneapolis, which provides meals, showers, laundry facilities and other services, helped 1,252 youth in 2010, 1,803 last year, and is on track to help even more this year.

Moving the teens quickly into safe housing is critical, advocates say, because vulnerable youth are often exploited on the streets.

"You've got to sleep at people's houses, and there's partying, sex, drugs," explained Quantez Devine, 20, who stopped by the opportunity center last week to get help looking for an apartment. "You lay down your head and think, 'I want to get out of this.' You wake up to the smell of marijuana."

Host homes newest twist

One of the newest models for getting young folks off the street is the host home program. It's is modeled after a program launched more than a decade ago for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) youth in the Twin Cities, said Deborah Loon, executive director of Avenues for Homeless Youth, the Minneapolis nonprofit running the program.

A national model, it pairs host individuals and families with youth who need a safe place to live.

Josh had been sleeping at a friend's house when he learned of the program from a social service agency.

He said he chose Jeunesse, 38, from the pool of potential hosts because his application showed he had a sense of humor and a heart.

"It touched me to see a young man, working hard, and offering his home to a stranger," said Josh. "That was powerful to me. "

Jeunesse, meanwhile, said he signed up for the program after seeing a television special on youth homelessness.

"I feel like I'm at a point in my life where I can contribute," Jeunesse said.

After undergoing training in conflict resolution, setting rules, and other skills, Jeunesse met Josh and opened his doors. They meet monthly with social workers to keep on track. The arrangement has worked out very well, Jeunesse said.

Lessons learned

The most successful services for homeless youth have been those in which the young folks are the drivers, said advocates. With the host home program, for example, it was Josh who chose his future home.

Another lesson learned is that homeless youth can't be lumped with homeless adults when providing housing and services, said Heather Huseby, executive director of YouthLink, which manages the Youth Opportunity Center. It's not always safe, she said, and youth come with a distinct set of needs.

Devine agreed. The 20-year-old stayed at a men's shelter recently but decided to leave. "It got pretty rough over there," he said.

Meanwhile, there's been a growing focus on helping youth land a job quickly, as well as job training and education. The Nicollet Square housing complex, for example, offers on-site job services. It boasts a 97 percent job placement rate with youth who are able to work, said Lee Blons, executive director of the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation, which developed the projects.

"We know what works," said Jodi Harpstead, CEO of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. "We're figuring out how to take what works and replicate it."

One reason for the recent boost in services is that the Otto Bremer Foundation launched a $4 million, three-year campaign to improve services for homeless youth, ranging from street workers to emergency shelters to long-term housing. It was a bright spot in a funding landscape that has often been difficult for nonprofits helping the teens.

"Being a teenager is a risky business to start out with," said Randi Roth, executive director of the Otto Bremer Foundation. "As we figure out what supports they need, we can work together as a community to provide them."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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