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Homeless for a holiday or any day

Minnesota Mist
Nicollet Place
Photo Gary Peterson
Nicollet Square, housing for homeless youth in South Minneapolis

Nationwide, workers aged 18 to 24 have the highest unemployment rate of all adults and constitute a significant part of the country's homeless population. Susan Saulny reported from Seattle about this invisible problem in The New York Times, Dec. 18.

In Minnesota, 13,100 people are homeless on any given night. Of these, the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless reports that 2,500 are unaccompanied youth, a number that has increased 46% since 2006.

The Portico Interfaith Housing Collaborative started life 12 years ago as a ministry of the Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis, inspired by members who viewed and mused about a vacant nursing home across the street as they left services every Sunday. Today, Portico is a coalition of 50 congregations that serves 735 residents in multiple facilities with a commitment to end homelessness in the Twin Cities.

One of those facilities, Nicollet Square, opened in December 2010 on the former site of Werness Funeral Home. The new, three-story brick building at 3710 Nicollet Avenue houses young people in studio apartments on the upper two floors, while much of the ground floor is rented by the Butter Bakery Cafe, Rise, Inc., and Life Force Chiropractic.

Half of Nicollet Square's 42 units are dedicated to the long-term homeless, defined as those who have either been on the street for more than one year or have been without a place to stay four times in three years. The remaining units are designed to prevent homelessness among those who are emerging from and aging out of foster care, and are referred by county agencies.

I joined members of the Wells Foundation board of directors when they visited Nicollet Square last weekend to receive an overview and tour of the project for which they have provided financial support. We gathered initially in the large, ground-floor community room, just inside the 24-hour front desk.

The community room includes a combined kitchenette and television lounge, with large, west-facing windows looking out on a patio, backyard, and alley. A few paces away are small offices for YouthLink, Hired, the building's manager, CommonBond Housing, a work-out room, and a 24-hour computer lab for residents.

People between the ages of 18 and 21 are eligible to take up residence at Nicollet Square, and can remain until they feel ready to move on. Each individual signs a lease and pays rent on his or her studio apartment. Rent charges start at $205 per month upon move in; this rises to $305 in the third year and $405 in the fourth. CommonBond maintains a 24-hour front desk. Residents have keys to their individual units.

Nearly all residents are employed. Within two weeks of moving in, Hired matches them with a "work-fast" internship. These internships are privately subsidized for three months at a level of $1,700. YouthLink provides needed services on a voluntary basis, ranging from therapy to help writing resumes to securing birth certificates and social security cards.

"Home is..." plaque outside Nicollet Square, 37th and
Nicollet, Minneapolis

Our tour was led by Lee Blons, executive director, Lee Mauk, board member, and Marlys Weyandt, fund development coordinator. Weyandt explained how, on the streets, a backpack serves as a young person's "home." She displayed the contents of a typical backpack, which includes books or textbooks, used for escape or to complete their educations while homeless; unhealthy packaged foods; photos, even to maintain a connection to a lost or negative relationship; a library card which provides a rare but great sense of community; clothes; and sometimes a bus pass.

Nic's Closet, located on the third floor, provides residents with a range of donated items, including dishes, flatware, photo frames, towels, blankets, brooms, kitchen bags, soap, etc. The second and third levels also hold coin-operated laundry facilities, small lounges, and hallway reading libraries.

Because young men have trouble asking for help, most youth housing has more women residents. The ratio at Nicollet Square, however, is split evenly. Half of new residents have not graduated from high school.

Some statistics:

  • 25% of homeless adults became homeless as children;
  • 45% of homeless youth have been physically or sexually abused;
  • 57% of homeless youth spend at least one day a month without food;
  • 70% of homeless youth were in foster care or other settings before becoming homeless;
  • 22% of those in foster care become homeless in their first year on their own;
  • 42% of those in foster care become homeless at some point in their lives.

All on-site service providers at Nicollet Square act as adult role models for healthy relationships, and provide safety, structure, a safety net, a support network, accountability, and confidence.

Nicollet Square was launched with $350,000 of capital provided by members of the Plymouth Congregational and Westminster Presbyterian churches, and built for $9 million, including federal stimulus funds for shovel-ready projects.

Portico must raise $30,000 per month for ongoing support and operations of Nicollet Square. The monthly cost includes its contracts with Hired, YouthLink, CommonBond, and the work-fast internships. People interested in being helpful can call Portico at 651.789.6260.

This post was written by Gary Peterson and originally published on Minnesota Mist. Follow Gary on Twitter: @garypeterson

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Comments (1)

Catchig their breath

Young people - because they are young and impulsive - often harbor a romantic vision of how wonderful being on their own would be. By the time the distasteful aspects of that experience confronts them with a cold hard dose of reality, they have often burned the bridges that would allow them to retreat, if indeed there was anyplace to retreat to.

This arrangement sounds to me like the carefully considered, comprehensive program that would allow them time to regroup and realize they need to be better prepared for independence than they at first believed. Everyone deserves a second chance. I hope the young people receiving this one make the most of it.

It looks like a well thought out program to me.