The first time Mason Persons felt like he was really home, he says, was when he moved in with two women he had just met.
"I feel weird about going to people's homes in general. But I was like, OK, I'm going to live here now," said Persons, now 21. After having been homeless for more than a year, "it was really weird and surreal to have an actual bed."
Persons met the women through Avenues for Homeless Youth. Now Avenues, which has operated throughout the metro area for more than two decades, is developing programs in two suburbs — Eden Prairie and Hopkins — where it's partnering with nonprofits to recruit families in the young people's home communities.
"The best thing for young people is often to keep them in their community and not displace them," said Sarah Granger, executive director of Hopkins-based MoveFwd, which offers a drop-in center and other services for youth in the west metro suburbs.
According to program manager Ryan Berg, Avenues for Youth annually matches about 300 homeless young people between ages 16 and 24 with volunteer host families on either a short- or long-term basis. The families provide food and shelter while Avenues offers services and support to help the youth stabilize their lives.
Single people ages 24 and under account for 15% of Minnesota's 10,233 homeless, according to a recent report by St. Paul-based Wilder Research.
Jenny Buckland, program director of the PROP (People Reaching Out to People) food shelf in Eden Prairie, heard about the need for host families from high school social workers. They contacted Avenues to suggest a localized program.
"It was kind of our team view that it was really important to have access to school, access to your friends, access to the places you know," Buckland said. "If you're suddenly displaced in a completely new place, I think it adds to the trauma."
'Us and us'
According to census data, Eden Prairie and Hopkins rank 24th and 74th in per capita income, respectively, among Minnesota's 868 cities. But even many wealthy suburbs have pockets of poverty.
"It's hard for people to comprehend," said Granger, who sees 30 to 35 young people a year in Hopkins who need housing. "Most of them are couch-hopping or sleeping in their car, and most of them are going to school and working."
Not all homeless youths have impoverished backgrounds, Berg said. Some are on their own after a fight with their family, or because of family problems such as addiction or mental illness.
"We center on and prioritize those youths who have the highest level of vulnerability, typically LBGT youths and youths of color," who are disproportionately likely to be homeless, Berg said. Many LGBT youths avoid shelters for fear of harassment or violence.
Avenues is different from programs like foster care, primarily because it lets the young people call the shots, Berg said.
"The youth are voluntary participants — they're never 'placed,' " Berg said. "We have the families write an open letter to young people explaining who they are, what their environment is like, their interests, transportation options." The youths can decide whether they'd like to live there.
Families set ground rules for what's allowed in their homes and can step out of the program whenever illness, travel or another factor intrudes. They go through extensive training on issues involving privilege, race, sexual orientation and gender identity.
"We stress the philosophy of solidarity rather than charity — it's us and us, rather than us and them," Berg said.
A much better path
Persons ran away from his suburban home when he was 17 after a fallout with his mother and moved to a youth shelter where, he said, other residents asked him "to explain things I shouldn't have to explain."
When he turned 18 and had to leave the shelter, Persons slept on friends' couches, in a bookstore that was open late and outside the coffee shop where he worked. He spent a few terrifying nights outdoors, including a couple nights in trees.
Then he met Marissa Tappy and Lindsay Techel through Avenues. They invited him to live in their Minneapolis house, gave him a bedroom of his own and provided the privacy he craved.
Tappy and Techel had considered adoption or in vitro fertilization but decided neither was right for them and opted for the host home program, for which they have volunteered since 2010. Right away, said Tappy, 39 and an aspiring novelist, the program "felt like a really good fit."
"Stepping back, I think this was very much more our path," said Techel, 40, a computer programmer.
They since have hosted a number of youths, some of whom wanted only shelter and some who wanted their hosts to take them to dances and kickball games. The couple were fine with whatever was needed.
"You already know the youth has been in crisis and there's trauma and you really do not want to make it worse," Tappy said.
The couple became close to Persons, who liked talking to them and was charmed by their golden retrievers. "We felt like he was a really outgoing, interesting person," Tappy said.
Since leaving his host home, Persons has lived in a tiny apartment in Minneapolis, the second place he has considered home. In high school, he'd been involved in theater and particularly enjoyed costuming. Now he keeps a sewing machine in his living room and crafts recycled fabrics into the "really extravagant, gaudy clothing" he loves.
"Every day I wake up and, even if it's a really hard day for some reason, I'm really happy that I have my apartment," Persons said.
Still, he makes $10 an hour and said he's "hella broke." His landlord is raising his rent in May. He said he's not sure what will happen after that.