In Minnesota, it can be hard for a homeless teen to find a shelter bed. Put that teen in an outer-ring suburb of the Twin Cities, and that search can be almost impossible.
That’s what Pam Langseth, board member for Open Hands, an independent charitable foundation founded by Westwood Community Church in Excelsior, discovered when she and her colleagues asked west metro teachers, social workers, law enforcement officers and government employees to list their community’s most pressing social needs.
In these conversations, Langseth and her colleagues learned about expected community needs, like affordable housing and transportation, but they were surprised to learn about one particularly pressing problem: There were many teens in their towns that did not have a safe place to sleep at night.
“We learned that as many as three to four kids per night per high school in our west suburban communities were without a place to sleep because of a crisis in their lives,” Langseth said. This was a particular problem for suburban teens, she learned, because there were no shelters that accepted young people without parents west of Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.
For a young person without a car, that distance can feel as far away as the moon, so many suburban teens without permanent homes were making do — sleeping in cars, couch-hopping at friends’ houses, or simply scrambling to find a bed.
Multiple factors added to the stress of these young people’s lives, Langseth added: “Eighty percent of kids without a home in our communities are impacted by mental illness, either with themselves or with a parent or someone else in their family. And about 25 percent of are also impacted by addiction.”
Professionals who were aware of the problem reported that they did their best to help. When Langseth met with the Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson, for instance, she recalled that he told her, “Frequently, myself or someone on my team picks up a kid and drives around in a squad car all night because there is nowhere else for them to go. I can’t put a kid in jail, though it would be a bed.” An overnight shelter, Olson told her, “would be a safe place where kids like this could go.”
This disturbing information added up, and Open Hands board members soon came to believe that there was a clear need they could fill. “We knew we had to do something,” Langseth said.
Eventually, the foundation teamed with Minneapolis-based social-services nonprofit 180 Degrees and opened Hope House, an emergency shelter for teens in Chanhassen. They leased a home from Westwood Church, converted it to hold up to six kids per night and hired a small staff of case managers and social workers. Because Hope House was licensed as an emergency shelter, its residents, teens between the ages of 14-19, can stay for no longer than 90 days. During that time, staff feeds them, provides transportation to school and work, and gives them a warm bed and work to help them get their lives sorted out.
“Clearly, the need was there,” Langseth said. “We responded. We said, ‘This is really compelling to us,’ and we did what was needed to make it happen.”
It’s different in the suburbs
From the outside, suburbs are thought of as places with sweeping green lawns, country clubs and low crime rates, but the truth is that suburban residents struggle with many of the same problems that city dwellers do.
Through their outreach, Open Hands Foundation staff saw this, and when they announced plans to start Hope House, they began to learn more about what made homelessness particularly challenging for suburban teens.
Joy Saina, Hope House program manager, said that some teens’ fall into homelessness is tied to their family’s disintegration. She’s heard similar stories from many of the kids who’ve spent time at the residence.
“Sometimes a family is not doing well,” she said. “They might be getting evicted from their home. They are living under extreme stress. If a child is a little older, a parent might say, ‘You’re on your own at this point. It’s looking like I have to live in my car. Figure it out for yourself. Go stay with a friend.’” For a teen, “figuring it out” isn’t always that easy, Saina said: “They might be able to stay with a friend for a little while, but the welcome can wear thin pretty quickly. Then they’re in trouble.”
Stress can exacerbate symptoms of mental illness or addiction, Langseth added, putting a teen’s living situation in jeopardy. “We’ve worked with kids who are from a financially challenged single-parent family. Their mom’s mentally ill, can’t do a lot, and the kids have to go out and fend for themselves. They don’t have food or money, and they end up here because this gives them the stability they are lacking.”
Richard Coffey, 180 Degrees director of programs, said that homeless kids in urban communities are sometimes easier to spot than their suburban counterparts, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t suburban kids without a safe place to sleep.
“In the city, you might see kids sleeping on the street, riding the train or on a park bench.” Coffey said. “In Chanhassen, they’re more likely to be sleeping in a car, couch-hopping at a friend’s house or finding a school corridor to sleep in.” The latter may sound outrageous, but, Coffey said, it has happened: “We know about one kid who was sleeping in their school for an entire year until they were discovered.”
Because homelessness carries shame, many teens work hard to hide their situation from others. In the suburbs, where poverty is often less visible, kids may work even harder to keep their status a secret. When that happens, Coffey said, “Teens start to feel alone and embarrassed, feeling like there is no way out and no future for them. All that plays into their mental health.”
Time for healing
On a recent sunny afternoon, Hope House was quiet. The three teens who were living there at the moment were away at school or work, and the adult staff was busy with the daily tasks of running a 24-hour shelter.
Saina and Langseth walked around the clean, bare residence, pointing out three bedrooms with rumpled beds where shelter residents slept, a small kitchen, a dining room with a large table for group dinners, a living room with couches, a fireplace and a low coffee table, and a rec room filled with games, books and foosball. The house’s walls were covered with signs bearing handwritten house rules and decorations from a recent reception held to celebrate the program’s third anniversary.
The house felt homey, but also somewhat temporary: Aside from their messy beds, the bedrooms didn’t look like typical lived-in teen rooms: No one would be there for that long. Maybe just long enough to help a kid reset their life.
It’s important to look at the experience from a teen’s perspective, Saina said. When you are 14 or 15, a month or even two weeks can feel like a lifetime. During their time at Hope House, many residents have made major changes in their lives that have set them up for healthier future.
Not all teens are a good match for Hope House. When they are contacted about taking in a young person, staff first works to determine if they meet the program’s requirements. One important restriction is that Hope House is not set up for kids who are actively using substances.
“To reside here teens have to agree to not use any drugs or alcohol,” Saina said. The program doesn’t employ alcohol or drug counselors and is not set up to work with kids facing addiction. “If they are actively battling that, we are not a good place for them.”
Most of the teens who come to Hope House have some kind of mental health concern, Saina said. Program staff is prepared for that, and they work with kids during the intake process to determine if they are already seeing a mental health professional.
“Our case manager will talk with the kids and ask, ‘Can we help you connect back up with your therapist? Have you been seeing anyone?’” Saina said. If the teen needs mental health help but doesn’t have a therapist, Hope House staff will connect him or her with someone close by: “We’ve got therapists locally. We’ll take a look at the kid’s insurance and try to find them appropriate care.”
None of the Hope House staff are trained as mental health counselors, but Saina said that they do their best to support residents and help them find the resources they need: “Most of my staff here have great listening ears and are good about helping those kids take certain steps forward.”
Another important part of the intake process is a meeting with a nurse, who comes to the house and helps assess each resident’s health, both physical and mental. “The nurses make sure that all of the kids’ meds are properly documented and distributed,” Coffey said. “Sometimes the nurse also helps to get the kid set up with someone who can provide mental health services.”
There are times when a potential resident’s mental health needs are greater than what Hope House staff can provide. “If it is obvious that a kid’s situation is beyond our capability here, we don’t take them in,” Saina said. If a child is actively suicidal, for instance, Hope House isn’t a good option. While adult staff is on site 24 hours a day, they aren’t trained to assist kids with intense mental health needs.
“If somebody is coming straight from a hospital and hospital staff tells us they are restraining this person every day because they are actively trying to kill themselves, this is not appropriate for this shelter. We are pretty independent here. We tell them, ‘At least half the time we are only single-staffed, so you have to be able to maintain your own safety and self-regulate.’”
While Hope House residents are expected to maintain some level of independence, staff does understand that their needs are significant. They work hard to support each teen, celebrating their individual steps toward growth and healing. What can be achieved in a relatively short time is often impressive.
“These kids have all dealt with serious trauma,” Coffey said. “Some people see this as weakness. I see it as a great strength. Sometimes I honestly don’t know how they can go through what they’ve gone through and still survive. They find a way out. It’s up to us adults to help them figure it out and find a way.”
‘What kids need is stability’
Many of the kids who reside at Hope House are desperately in need of a family, though they don’t always like to admit it, Saina said. Teens are expected to help out around the house — cleaning, planning meals, assisting with grocery shopping and cooking. The house rules are specific and firm.
At first, many new residents grumble about these expectations, but it doesn’t take long for them to come to appreciate the structure that it brings to their lives. These may be adult-sized teens, but they are still kids inside, and many have lived stressful, disrupted lives. At Hope House, they experience routine and predictability for the first time in years. This structure gives residents a chance to slow down and catch their breath.
Saina believes that an important part of the Hope House experience is giving residents an opportunity to work together toward a common goal.
“They live like a family,” Langseth said. “One of the things I’ve learned over the last three years is that what kids need is stability. Stability is structure, and the normal things that go on in a family because something is happening that hasn’t happened in their homes.”
But it’s also important for residents and staff to understand that another goal of the program is to reunite teens with their families. That means working with kids and their significant adults to establish compromise and ground rules, to ensure that everyone involved feels that they have what they need to feel safe, respected and understood.
“Generally speaking, most of our kids are eventually reunited with their family, if not with their biological parents, at least with another relative,” Saina said. “We’re in communication with the families from the beginning, and before the kids leave, when parents or other relatives come to pick them up, we’ll sit down with them and have a long, two-hour meeting where develop rules like, ‘Mom needs this from you when you go home. What do you need from Mom for you to be home?’”
This re-establishment of family bonds is important in some ways because Hope House only provides temporary shelter, Coffey said, but it is also important because staff believes that most kids do better when they are with their families.
“We try to help that kid and their family get back on track,” Coffey said. “If that’s not an option, we work to find the kid a long-term solution for living.”
It’s not always easy to find long-term living solutions for teens, Saina said.
“I used to do foster care in Carver County. I specialized in teenage girls. I was the only house that took in teenage girls in the whole county. The social workers would say, ‘Nobody wants to take teenage girls.’ You’d get people to sign up for foster care for the little babies, and the little kids, but nobody wanted those teenagers.”
This is a shame, she said, because teens in need can be strong, sweet and resilient. They just need to see that there are adults in the world who care and want to help them make it through this tough time in their lives.
Coffey recalls a recent Hope House resident, a 17-year-old boy who’d moved to Minnesota from Chicago with his mother. “They’d been living here for six months and they had no family,” he said. “Then this kid’s mother ended up getting killed and he was out on the streets with nowhere to go. Somehow he found us. I like to think we helped restore his faith in humanity.”
Saina recalls a girl who called one rainy night from the Mall of America. She was scared and alone, afraid of strangers and without a place to sleep. Though she prefers that teens find their own transportation to the program, Saina drove to the mall and picked the girl up herself.
“She was super anxious,” Saina said. “She felt like she had no one. I picked her up because I wanted her to see that someone would help her. We’re not called Hope House for nothing. We try to give kids hope.”