The voice mail is typical of those left every day at Hope Street Emergency Shelter. A young man – with both desperation and exhaustion obvious in his voice – left the message: “(I) was told to call twice a day, every day, for a bed so I’m calling to check on a bed for a 19-year-old.”
On most nights throughout Minnesota, more than 2,500 young people find shelter wherever they can. Hope Street, an emergency shelter in south Minneapolis operated by Catholic Charities, can serve 28 at a time. Last year, Hope Street received more than 1,900 calls from youth and those who work with homeless young people. The same scene plays out around the state. Forty percent of Minnesota’s homeless youth are in Greater Minnesota, communities and 10 percent are in Twin Cities suburbs.
Often, these youth are invisible. They sleep where they can. Many become victims of physical abuse and sexual exploitation. Some are as young as 12 years old, while others are 19 or 20 and trying to gain a foothold in the world. These youth typically aren’t homeless by choice. According to the highly regarded Wilder Research survey of youth homelessness (2009 data), 34 percent of Minnesota’s homeless youth have experienced parental neglect, 42 percent were physically abused, and 27 percent have been sexually abused. Nearly two-thirds of homeless youth have received an out-of-home placement; many simply “age out” of the foster-care system.
Longer view needed
Some get by through couch hopping with friends and acquaintances until they are no longer welcome. For the lucky few, finding a place to sleep for a night solves an immediate need. But a longer view is needed, one that includes helping these young people succeed in school, gain the skills needed to win and keep a job and build for the future.
There are many success stories. Corey, a young, newly homeless young woman, found YouthLink through a chance meeting at a bus stop. YouthLink – a Minneapolis nonprofit that helped nearly 2,300 homeless young people last year – was able to help Corey find housing and return to school. Today, she is a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and plans to transfer to the University of Minnesota in the fall. She also is working as an intern at YouthLink.
Corey’s story was shared with legislators during the introduction of the Homeless Youth Act, a bill in the Minnesota Legislature that would provide $8 million for homeless youth programs. The bill will build on a strong public-private partnership of federal, local and private philanthropic funds already serving these vulnerable young people. Money from the Homeless Youth Act will provide immediate assistance and long-term solutions, creating safe emergency shelters and the support needed for the young people to return to school and gain the skills needed for success as adults.
An undeniable return on investment
The stories of the young people who could be served through the Homeless Youth Act are compelling. The return on Minnesotans’ investment in the kind of long-term programs that could be funded through the legislation is undeniable. To cite just one statistic: Youth who fail to graduate from high school may cost the community $750,000 over a lifetime in areas like lost tax revenues, health-care costs, incarceration and social services.
The value of this investment is so strong that when Gov. Mark Dayton was presented with the facts, he added funding to his supplemental budget for the Homeless Youth Act.
Dayton’s support is welcome, especially in a year in which competition for spending will be intense. But the Homeless Youth Act isn’t a partisan issue or a cause rooted only in doing the right thing for vulnerable people. Youth homelessness is a challenge and an opportunity that affects all Minnesotans. The Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce recognized this reality when it recently named YouthLink its “non-profit of the year.” The commendation cited YouthLink’s “strategic plan and a strong network of volunteers who share the vision and values of the organization and to ensure future competitiveness and productive collaboration in the community.”
Ultimately, that’s the strongest rationale of all for funding the Homeless Youth Act – supporting young people in ways that help them become productive adults.
MayKao Y. Hang is the president and CEO of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Jodi Harpstead is the CEO of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. Tim Marx is the CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
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