Twenty-five years ago, there was little certainty that I would be alive today. I was bullied so severely in my small town that I was hospitalized for abdominal surgery. At the age of 17, I left this abuse behind and ran away to Minneapolis, without knowing where I would stay or what the future held. It wasn’t easy. Living on the streets is every bit as hard and terrifying as you might imagine, especially for a teenager.
Today, I am a college graduate, an executive at a Twin Cities bank, a homeowner and, most important, a husband and a father of four.
A recent news article about the challenge of homelessness in Minneapolis (“Too many homeless, too few beds,” Sept. 18) reminded me of just how lucky I was. I could sympathize with the 40 or so people seeking shelter who were unable to find a bed. And I know that as the weather turns colder, the challenge becomes more difficult and more urgent.
The problem is compounded for the estimated 6,000 Minnesotans between the ages of 16 and 24 who are homeless. Even if beds are available, it’s often safer to avoid shelters. They end up “couch-surfing,” moving from one place to another, often trading “favors” for a place to sleep.
This night-to-night uncertainty makes it hard to hold down a job or continue schooling. Instead of pursuing a life of financial independence, they run the risk of chronic homelessness, frequent run-ins with the criminal justice system and reliance on public assistance programs.
My path to escaping that life started when I found YouthLink, a Minneapolis nonprofit that connects young people with the resources they need. The organization provides homeless young people the same things all 16- to 24-year-olds need to be successful — education, security, a connection to peers and mentoring adults and, perhaps most important, a recognition that they have value and that their futures have potential. The biggest thing these kids need is hope and someone to believe in them.
It’s easy to argue for the moral value of investing in these young people. But there also is a financial incentive. Researchers Steven Foldes and Andrea Lubov studied a group of 1,451 YouthLink clients in 2011 to answer one important question: How many of the young people in the study group would need to achieve financial independence for Minnesota taxpayers to break even on the one-year-cost of intervention programs?
The cost for this group was substantial. Spending for each young adult averaged $12,800, including taxpayer-funded costs for housing, health care and other assistance programs, totaling nearly $19 million for the group.
The answer to the break-even question is stunning. According to Foldes’ economic analysis, if just 89 of the 1,451 young people achieve financial independence by age 20, the investments essentially pay for themselves — meaning a 6-percent success rate is the break-even point for taxpayers.
We can and should do much better than 6 percent.
And that’s just the one-year payoff. A lifetime of financial independence multiplies the impact. In my experience, instead of a lifetime of dependence on public programs and encounters with the law, I am employed and pay taxes, and my wages are spent on purchases that ripple through the community.
On Sunday, Twin Cities business and community leaders will share a Night of Hope by sleeping outside and pledging financial support. The annual event has become not just an important source of contributions for YouthLink, but a way to elevate the community’s awareness of the huge stake Minnesota has in the success of these young people.
The 6,000 young Minnesotans experiencing homelessness aren’t much different from the 17-year-old me. Given the opportunity, they are waiting to write their own success stories. And the economic analysis tells us that each of these is a community success story.
One night of hope can be the beginning of a lifetime of hope for thousands of young people.
Jamie Nabozny is vice president, business and community engagement officer, for Sunrise Banks.