Here’s a don’t-ever-give-up story that needs telling.
Like most such tales, it started a few years back. A Bloomington resident named Monica Williams got involved in social justice issues at her church. And her compassion grew.
She read in the local community paper a series of stories about poverty close to home in south Hennepin County. And she wanted to do something more.
Then she heard a local speaker talk about homeless youth. That sparked action.
From her concern was born Citizen Advocates for Homeless Youth, now a group of seven women researching the needs of kids, especially problems leading to homelessness.
At first the women set their sights on finding a place to house homeless teens from Bloomington and Richfield mostly, maybe six beds in a shelter along with supportive services including counseling.
But there were a couple of problems. First, getting what they considered reliable numbers of homeless suburban youth, and second the economic recession.
Anecdotally, there’s evidence of kids sleeping in stairwells or being shown the door by parents strapped for cash. Counselors in local high schools and middle schools have heard the stories, said Leslie Stiles, a member of Citizen Advocates along with her sister Karen McElrath.
The issue is of particular interest to the two because of their connection to Charlson Foundation, a family foundation focusing on housing and youth development issues. Stiles is a trustee and McElrath is president of the foundation.
Numbers on the homeless
There are periodic official counts of homeless people, but the Citizen Advocates question the reports’ accuracy for suburban homelessness.
Every three years Wilder Research conducts a statewide count; new data from a count last fall is due to be released soon. According to the 2006 data, on a “typical night” an estimated 600 youths under age 18 are homeless and on their own. The 2006 report calls this group of homeless among the “most vulnerable” and “least visible.”
Williams, who retired a couple of years ago after a long career in title insurance and real estate, agrees these youth are hard to find in order to count.
Too often kids “… don’t consider themselves homeless; they’re sleeping on Teddy’s couch. And they’re afraid to tell anyone they’re homeless, because who knows what’s going to happen to them. They’re kids,” explained Williams, 62.
So, last spring with funding from Charlson the women asked The Bridge for Youth to survey police departments, schools and social service agencies in Bloomington and Richfield. Eighty percent of those surveyed saw a need for emergency shelter beds for kids.
“They all tell you there is a need,” Williams said. Some suggest the homeless ride the buses, hang out at bus shelters and roam the Mall of America, hoping to become invisible in the crowds, group members said.
Still, given the economy, money to set up a local youth shelter is scare, so the group is, for now, taking a different approach. They have asked The Bridge, a 40-year-old social service agency that provides emergency and transitional housing for youth, to staff a pilot program at Oak Grove Middle School in Bloomington.
Adolescents need all the help they can get these days, Oak Grove principal Brian Ingemann says. After all, “They’re trying to figure out who they are, how to get along in society,” he said.
So this week a couple of Bridge staff members start mingling with Oak Grove’s 11- to 14-year-old kids over lunch, building relationships with them. Eventually Bridge staff will step into seventh and eighth grade classrooms to talk about problems kids are facing and to offer help.
The idea is prevention, Ingemann said, getting at the problems that lead kids into running away from home or getting into harmful behaviors and helping kids deal with “the menu of problems that adolescents have.” Things like relationships, challenging family dynamics, divorce, drugs, alcohol, sexuality, a family’s economic insecurity. The Bridge folks supplement the efforts of school counselors and teachers.
It never hurts to have more resources, the principal said.
Still, Williams and her colleagues in Citizen Advocates have not given up the idea of a safe place for suburban kids in crisis. Hopefully, programs like that at Oak Grove will “bring out the depth and breadth of the problem,” Stiles said.
To learn more, email Monica Williams at this address.