The Invisible Ones
When 19-year-old Angelique Shores was a junior at Richfield High School, she and her classmates were required to talk about their greatest fear during a business course called "Living on Your Own." The 39 or so other students had a common worry: Where will I live when I turn 18? Shores, then only 17, had other anxieties weighing on her. She was afraid that she'd never accomplish the goals she'd set for herself, like becoming a nurse.
"I finally realized why my fear wasn't the same," she says. "It was because even while I was still in school, I was homeless. I was already finding a way to live day by day, to eat day by day. My fear was not being able to prove to myself that I was an adult."
Even so, Shores appears gregarious and confident, but it can't come easy. For a year and a half, the intense rift between Shores and her mother forced her to rotate between her mom's house in Edina, her dad's home in Chicago, and the few Twin Cities youth-friendly shelters. Not having a place to call home, Shores eventually dropped out of high school. Shores's story mirrors those of many of the other 22,000 or so Minnesota kids who wind up alone and homeless every year.
According to a 2003 Wilder Survey published this spring, 500 to 600 kids ages 8 to 17 are on their own each night in Minnesota. But there's still a large segment of the homeless-youth population unaccounted for: the kids who are drifting back and forth between precarious living situations; those who are transitioning from rehab facilities, foster homes, and jail; and the hundreds of homeless youth between 18 and 21. "Some of these kids, because of everything they've been through, emotionally they're 12," says Gina Ciganik, senior project manager for St. Barnabas Apartments, a youth-housing complex that opened in downtown Minneapolis in April. "Nothing happens to suddenly make you an adult on that magic day you turn 18."
Shores, who hasn't abandoned her plans to attend nursing school, is now living at another new subsidized housing complex. Lindquist Apartments offers 24 efficiencies--hip-looking studios, which opened on Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis last month--for young adults. Lindquist, St. Barnabas, and Archdale (also in downtown Minneapolis) are the only complexes in the Twin Cities that provide onsite subsidized permanent housing for youth. (The young tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent.) But if the lives of the kids who end up here are tenuous, the funding and stability of such programs are just as fragile.
Nineteen-year-old Katie Bennett has been living at Lindquist for just days. Before making Lindquist her home, the Elk River native spent 28 days in drug rehabilitation for meth addiction, and another 75 days at a halfway house. Going back to Elk River wasn't an option. Bennett says she was happy to find Lindquist, since one of the rules of the permanent-housing complex is sobriety and a number of supportive services are readily available.
Brian Wates, age 23, spent his adolescence bouncing around from foster home to rehab centers to shelters to mental-health wards and back again. He's been living at Lindquist Apartments since it opened. After he's finished with the four credits he needs to graduate high school, Wates wants to get a culinary arts degree. But his most immediate concern is finding a job. "I don't care what I do," he says. "I'll even flip burgers."
According to Rich Wayman at StreetWorks, a collaborative youth-outreach organization of 13 agencies, it's not unusual for outreach workers who comb the Twin Cities streets every night to encounter dozens of homeless kids in a span of only a few hours. StreetWorks estimates the number of kids in Minnesota between the ages of 16 and 21 alone and without homes each night is at least 1,000.
But because of the $1.2 million in budget cuts in 2003 to the state's homeless and runaway youth funding, Minnesota has lost 137 youth-housing units, 16 shelter beds reserved for youth, and 48 youth advocates and case managers. Currently the Twin Cities has only 65 emergency beds for youth--found at the Bridge and Hope Street in Minneapolis, Safe House and Ain Dah Yung in St. Paul--and 310 transitional and permanent apartments, all of which have extensive waiting lists.
"The budget cuts have really hit hard," Wayman says, adding that there have been jobs--and time--lost. "The developmental stage is all about building relationships. For us to cut 48 workers--programs don't work without adults who can make connections with adolescents who need it."
Wayman says that most of the homeless kids he meets don't feel safe in adult shelters, and many such shelters won't take in minors. He sometimes has to resort to putting kids on a warm 24-hour bus, which they'll sleeplessly ride around town in until the downtown skyways reopen in the morning.
Archdale, Lindquist, and St. Barnabas are a welcome step forward in the effort to help a growing youth homeless population. But, as with StreetWorks, money is a concern--and there's a reason to wonder if even small progress will continue. For instance, Lindquist and St. Barnabas receive Section 8 funding, which is invaluable but also notoriously shaky. Like the gutted shelter system, they're forced to rely on private donations and other sources to simply stay afloat.
"We're nervous," says Ciganik. "There were several times up until a month before we opened that we didn't have Sec 8 funding. With what the government is talking about with cuts, we don't know what will happen." Wayman echoes that sentiment: "The heartbeat of the programs has already been removed."
So even if folks like Shores, Bennett, and Wates have hit a reprieve, there are still people adrift every day, kids who don't bear the stereotypical attributes of homelessness but blend in with the rest of the kids who fill up all-ages clubs or suburban strip-mall parking lots. "They're everywhere, and you'd never even know it," Shores says. "They're walking around downtown, at Applebee's, wherever."
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