Forum held on homeless youth in northwest suburbs

The Rev. Rachel Morey of Mosaic United Methodist Church addresses community members during a forum on youth homelessness at Brooklyn Park City Hall on Tuesday, March 18. (Sun Post staff photo by Christiaan Tarbox)
The Rev. Rachel Morey of Mosaic United Methodist Church addresses community members during a forum on youth homelessness at Brooklyn Park City Hall on Tuesday, March 18.  (Sun Post staff photo by Christiaan Tarbox)

Community members from various northwest metro suburbs attended a forum on the issue of youth homelessness and what can be done to remedy the problem.

The Think Again Brooklyns women’s group hosted a discussion on the problem of homeless children in the suburban metro area at the Brooklyn Park City Council Chambers on Tuesday, March 18, with various political, educational and religious figures addressing the problems at hand and solutions that could curb the issue in a significant manner.

The headlining speakers for the evening were the Rev. Rachel Morey, pastor of the Mosaic United Methodist Church of Brooklyn Park, and Terry Velasquez, developmental director for Avenues for Homeless Youth of North Minneapolis. Morey relayed stark statistics regarding the homeless youth situation in Minnesota.

“Forty-six percent of people experiencing homelessness are 21 or under; that’s against 30 percent of the U.S. population (for that demographic),” said Morey. “The estimates of the number of Minnesota unaccompanied homeless youth (is) at 4,080. The last time (the nonprofit Amherst H. Wilder Foundation) did this study in 2009, it was 1,115. We’ve seen a very sharp rise.”

Morey, whose Mosaic church offers worship service in Brooklyn Park but operates day-to-day at Brooklyn United Methodist Church in Brooklyn Center, spoke in detail about the day in the life for an average homeless youth that she encounters at Mosaic’s food shelf program.

“When a young person is experiencing homelessness, (they don’t) have those adult advocates which are so critical,” said Morey. “The vast majority we see coming through the youth food shelf are couch-hopping.”

Morey also mentioned that many homeless youth, particularly girls, exchange sexual favors for food and shelter, and were usually more willing to engage in risky behavior to survive rather than seek help at a licensed shelter.

“Most of the people who work in our youth shelters have a horror story of a night when all the beds were full, which is every single night,” said Morey. “They have a horror story that sticks with them and that haunts them when they go to sleep of the kids that they have to say ‘no’ to. And the best they can do is hand those kids bus tokens so they can ride the bus all night long.”

Shocking numbers

The forum also featured speakers from two different northwest suburban school districts. Jenny Gaard, a three-year homeless liaison for the Osseo School District, and the rise of identified homeless students in her district in the last four-plus years was a cause for alarm for the administration. According to Gaard, 191 students were identified as being homeless – defined as lacking a permanent nighttime shelter or transitioning from one residence to the next, either at hotels or friends’ houses – in the 2009 school year. As of 2014, approximately 520 students are identified as homeless.

“You can see the numbers are not decreasing,” said Gaard. “Homelessness exists, it’s going to exist. Homelessness is not just someone living on the street in very ragged clothing. It’s someone that could be your neighbor, could be a co-worker, could be a friend. It exists.”

Karrie Schaaf, homeless liaison for the Anoka-Hennepin School District, mentioned that 704 children in her district were identified as homeless.

“Of that 704, 32 we’ve identified in our elementary schools, and 66 at our secondary (schools),” said Schaaf. “We have an increase in the numbers. Last year we ended the school year at 721, so we’re almost at that point right now.”

According to Schaaf, the notion of unaccompanied youth was becoming more and more serious in Hennepin County.

“Of the Hennepin County numbers, there were 24 unaccompanied youth that were doubled up with somebody so they would have maybe boyfriends, mom, or good friend from church that they were able to stay with, but seven of those unaccompanied youth were on their own,” said Schaaf. “They had no adult, no one, no safe place to go. So any youth that is kicked out or has ran away is at risk for becoming sexually exploited or trafficked.”

Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of African Immigrant Services in Brooklyn Park, spoke on the trials faced by homeless immigrants.

“One thing that strikes me as very crucial is that immigrants … are disproportionately affected by this homelessness issue,” said Kiatamba. “Worse, those numbers don’t even reflect some of their problems. If you look deeper, some of these families that are reporting that their kids are homeless, we have not fully captured the depth and the full implications of this problem.”

Kiatamba encouraged community members and local politicians to be proactive in fighting the homeless issue head-on.

“We need to step up, we need to meet folks halfway,” said Kiatamba. “It requires leadership that responds to the problem in ways that are sustainable, that are effective and that create urgency in our own communities.”

A second chance

Despite the less-than-encouraging statistics provided by the speakers, the forum allowed for various programs meant to combat homelessness to be highlighted.

Gaard mentioned the Osseo School District’s utilization of government grants as afforded by the 1987 McKinney Vento Act, which was the first major federal legislation meant to respond to homelessness in America.

“It’s a law that allows homeless children to attend school no matter what,” said Gaard. “It’s basically a no-barriers law for our kids.”

The Osseo district first received funds from the McKinney Vento Act in 2009, which allowed funds for school supplies, personal hygiene products, transportation, after-school tutoring programs and even provide technological resources for eligible high schoolers who have been accepted to post-secondary education institutions.

“A lot of our kids are graduating who have been accepted to a post-secondary education,” said Gaard. “So what we’ve done is purchase a set amount of laptops and we load it with Microsoft Word and any anti-virus systems, and we will give that laptop to that person who has been accepted to that post-secondary education. We want to do our best to help them.”

Morey talked about how a large number of homeless youth she encounters rely on their schools to meet their most basic needs.

“A lot of them are great about getting to school, because it’s a warm place,” said Morey. “It’s a safe place, there’s adults who won’t hurt them. … But even with their intense presence at school, only a third will graduate.”

Morey talked about the various faith- and civic-sponsored homeless programs around the northwest suburbs. The Families Moving Forward rotating shelter program offers safe haven and support for homeless families at several congregations, including three in Brooklyn Park with two more in the pipeline. The Suburban Host Home program, sponsored by Avenues for Homeless Youth, has 15 host homes in the metro area to offer shelter for families. Mosaic offers the No Hassles food shelf program in partnership with Community Emergency Assistance Programs, the YMCA, and Cross of Glory Lutheran Church on Wednesdays and Fridays.

However, Morey spoke of a personal experience that led her and Velasquez to venture out on their most ambitious project yet.

“We have had a missing link,” said Morey. “And that missing link is when a young person approached me on my driveway one morning before I drove to church and said, ‘I don’t have a place to go, can you help me?’ I had to tell her ‘no.’”

“The missing link was (that) we need a safe bed we can take a kid to tonight,” Morey continued. “So the next time a kid approaches me in my driveway, I’ll say ‘Hop in, and let’s go. It’s only three blocks away.’”

Morey and Velasquez presented information on their proposed Brooklyn Avenues transitional center, a facility that would have 10 transitional housing beds and one to two emergency beds for homeless youth aged 16-21. The center, proposed to be based in Brooklyn Park, would offer 24-hour staff support, a non-judgmental environment, case management, nursing, mental health care, life skills training, employment and education support, family counseling and self-empowerment activities. A similar facility based in north Minneapolis run by Avenues has hosted urban youth with success, and the organization hopes a suburban branch will give a chance to local kids who are unable or unwilling to head to Minneapolis for help. So far, the project has been receiving support from the city of Brooklyn Park and beyond.

“Brooklyn Park is acquiring property they are going to renovate or build, which is unbelievably generous,” said Velasquez. “The faith and civic communities have just really stepped up to the plate, helping us raise money, they’re talking about volunteering, they’re talking about donating supplies.”

Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde mentioned his and the Brooklyn Park City Council’s support for the project, mentioning that churches from Brooklyn Center, New Hope and Champlin have been involved in the effort as well.

“The city (of Brooklyn Park) decided to use $800,000 from one of our TIF (tax increment financing) funds to provide a facility,” said Lunde. “It is a regional effort. So what we’ve got in place is an opportunity for something special. While we will provide the facility, the community is raising money and awareness, and hopefully we will soon have good news where we can hit that moment where we say, ‘It’s happening.’”

According to Velasquez, the operating budget for Brooklyn Avenues would be $600,000, averaging out to around $10,000 to $15,000 per youth.

“We are pursuing a healthy mix of funding, probably 50 percent public and 50 percent private. We don’t want to rely too heavily on any one resource,” said Velasquez. “We’ve asked the northwest suburbs to help us raise approximately $150,000 a year. That is a quarter of the budget. We’re also hoping that people will consider multi-year pledges, because that allows us to plan.”

The project has received $30,000 in donations from the community since January, and Avenues is in negotiations with Hennepin County for a $100,000 service contract, with possible financial support from Target, United Way and other corporations.

“I’ve been a fundraiser since 1996, and I have never seen a community step up to the plate the way that this community has,” said Velasquez.

Morey is hopeful that these efforts will make a huge difference in the lives of the homeless youth she meets on a frequent basis.

“This affects kids from every walk of life,” said Morey. “There’s a bed somewhere for that kid that they should be in. If we can get to them in that first 48 hours, we drastically reduce the chance that they’ll find themselves caught up in trafficking and exploitation. But we got to move fast. I’m confident we can make it happen.”

Contact Christiaan Tarbox at [email protected] or follow the Sun Post on Twitter @ecmsunpost.