U students work with youths to end homelessness

Homeless youths face trafficking, abuse and mental health problems.

Kathryn Nelson

Homelessness might be a visible problem in cities where the climate is mild, but when the temperatures dip below freezing, the problem often becomes unseen and forgotten.

Wilder Research estimates there are 22,410 homeless and runaway youths in Minnesota each year. This group faces obstacles such as trafficking, abuse, general vulnerability, safety concerns and mental health problems.

One University graduate said the state is not addressing these concerns.

Sarah Taylor-Nanista is the director of The StreetWorks Collaborative, which provides direct outreach to homeless youths throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The organization is a compilation of more than a dozen agencies that focus on homeless youths. Through this coalition, StreetWorks provides housing services, meal sites, counseling, medical care and other critical necessities for the homeless.

Yet, Taylor-Nanista said this isn’t enough.

She, along with more than 20 organizations, is pushing Minnesota’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Act in the Legislature.

The act requests an $8 million investment to fund more programs targeted at aiding and solving the issue of homeless youths.

In the act, homeless and runaway youths are defined as people 21 years old or younger who lack fixed, regular and adequate nighttime housing, people who are without supervision, or people whose guardian is unable or unwilling to provide shelter.

Taylor-Nanista said this act helps define homelessness in broader terms. For example, many times youths stay at distant friends’ or family members’ houses for several days at a time, which they call “couch hopping” she said.

“The federal government doesn’t count them as homeless because they are not staying on the streets or in a shelter,” she said.

But, with the bill, this phenomenon is defined as homelessness because the youths lack nighttime housing, she said.

Taylor-Nanista said existing services lack funds to provide aid to homeless youths.

“The Bridge for Runaway Youth went to the lottery system (for overnight housing) for the first time this winter,” she said.

Taylor-Nanista said her organization gives out bus tokens to homeless youths so that they are able to sleep in a warm bus overnight.

“This is their safest and warmest option, which I think is pretty absurd,” she said.

Youthlink’s Carol Gronfor said Minnesota’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Act brings much-needed attention to the issue of youth homelessness.

“The fact that they’ve recognized youth as a specific population with their own needs and their own requirements for service coordination was a significant step,” she said.

One of Youthlink’s five main programs, an onsite clinic, has to cut its hours due to financial struggles, Gronfor said.

Still, she said she believes the community will be compassionate to the needs of youths if it realizes the extent of the problem.

“I think most people will respond to the fact that youth deserve a fighting chance,” she said.

Just before spring break, the University Habitat for Humanity group delivered bag lunches to the Listening House in St. Paul.

Kim Resheske, a sport management and child psychology senior, said the event gave the University a chance to become more connected with the community.

About 35 people stood in assembly lines spreading peanut butter and jelly on bread and packing them up in brown bags in the computer science building.

Through the work of University students, past and present, Taylor-Nanista said she believes youth homelessness could be eliminated.

“I absolutely think this is a solvable problem,” she said.