There are some questions asked of local teachers that they wish students wouldn’t have a need to pose—“Where can I stay tonight?” or “Can I sleep somewhere in school?” Cassie, a 16-year-old local student, asked similar questions as a fourth grader and again for a brief time last summer. Her mother, a single parent of three children, has faced financial struggles, which led to periods when the family lost housing. “I was really angry,” Cassie says. “I asked, ‘Why me?’ and I questioned everything.”
Cassie and her family stayed with friends or at a local motel until housing was secured. When local teens face homelessness on their own, their struggles can be compounded as they navigate pathways to meet their basic needs without the benefit of family support. Until recently, when area teens were on their own and homeless, there were few local options.
Westwood Church’s Open Hands Foundation, established in 2003 to aid the community’s underserved, stepped in to fill the gap. During a five-year strategic study, organizers tapped city officials, faith leaders, law enforcement personnel and school district administers to assess the area’s needs. “The thing that was glaring was that three to four high school students (at local public high schools) were homeless, and many more were couch hopping,” foundation member Pam Langseth says, noting that figures don’t take into account middle school students and teens in private schools, who also can be at risk. “In an area that is as affluent and caring as this, it just didn’t make sense.”
The study’s results steered Open Hands members to focus on teen homelessness. With the dual goals of providing safe harbor and reuniting families, Open Hands chose to partner with Minneapolis’ Bridge for Youth.
In November, a church-owned house opened as Bridge for Youth Southwest. The three-bedroom home houses up to six youth ages 10-17 years old. At least one full-time staff member is on site 24/7, and up to three staffers and additional volunteers are available during regular hours.
Upon arrival, teens receive a health assessment by medical personnel and medical care, if needed, by Ridgeview Medical Clinic, which is offering free services. Walk-in and by-appointment counseling for youth, parents and families is offered, as well as weekly drop-in support groups.
According to stipulations from the Department of Health and Human Services, emergency crisis shelters can only house an individual for 90 days. Site supervisor Robert Ward, a doctor of psychology, says the average stay at crisis shelters is three to six days, and it is not a permanent living solution. There are other entities to serve that need. “This is not a solution for ‘I can’t go home. I need a permanent place to live,’” he says.
The root causes for teen homelessness are multifaceted. Ward says the reasons teens leave home can include family conflicts about grades, chemical use by parent, child or other family members, untreated or undiagnosed mental health issues on the part of the parent, child or other family members, domestic violence, family financial pressure and a host of other factors. “What is unique to this area is the pressure to go to college,” Ward says. “(Teens) were barely surviving high schools,” and the expectation to attend college was a breaking point for them.
Langseth calls area teen homelessness a hidden problem. “They want to fit in, and they do everything they can to fit in,” she says. Cassie agrees, “A lot of people are good at hiding it,” she says, adding Bridge for Youth Southwest will offer more than a roof over teens’ heads. “I think it’s going to be really impactful,” she says. “People will realize this is a (local) issue, and it’s just not in Minneapolis.”
Teens in need of shelter can call 612.377.8800 or text 612.400.SAFE (7233).
Send donations to: The Open Hands Foundation, 3121 Westwood Drive, Excelsior, MN 55331