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No place to call home: Finding resources can be a challenge for Hastings teens

Hastings has some resources for homeless teens in the area, such as Hastings Family Service. In March, the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton fifth-grade class raised and donated 634 pounds of food to the organization. RiverTown Multimedia file photo

HASTINGS — Nearly 30 students in the Hastings School District experienced homelessness this year.

According to Sarah Kloeckl, Hastings Public Schools assistant director of special services, the average for homeless youth in Hastings schools is less than 1 percent, while the state average is between 2 and 3 percent.

There are about 4,700 students, kindergarten through 12th grade, in the district.

Four of the 29 homeless students reported in Hastings are considered unaccompanied youth — homeless teens who are on their own, without their family — and may be living in their cars or "couchsurfing" at friends' houses.

Many are still with family, but are doubled up in friend's home or staying together at a shelter.

Though the amount of homeless teenagers is higher in the Twin Cities and most metro area cities, teens facing homelessness in greater Minnesota face different challenges and ones that often make them more vulnerable.

The further from the Twin Cities, the harder it can be for teenagers to connect with resources.

They are more likely to be outside of a shelter system or unable to find shelter, according to Wilder Research. Wilder also found these teens are much more likely to have experienced some kind of adverse events such as abusive or incarcerated parents, sexual abuse or been in an out-of-home placement for some period of time.

Some 400 families in Dakota County have contacted the housing crisis line for help. Even just within the county, those experiencing homelessness in Hastings face greater challenges.

"With Hastings not having much public transportation, if people end up homeless in Hastings it's harder to get connected to resources," Rebecca Bowers with Dakota County social services said.

At school

For most unaccompanied minors, just staying enrolled in school can be a daily challenge.

The last Wilder survey reported that over half of students experiencing homelessness received poor or failing grades. Nearly half also struggled with truancy or attendance, mostly attributed to challenges faced in getting to school.

However, Wilder reported attendance has been increasing.

Kloeckl said students facing homelessness are eligible for before- and after-school programs, and are automatically eligible for summer school even if they don't need it.

Sometimes though, this time of the year is where those students can fall through the cracks.

These students can be given food and other supplies for the summer, but that only lasts so long. And when they're not in school, there's not always much the school district can do to help them.

Often, community members or smaller nonprofit organizations are able to step in to provide the assistance students need, without the technical barriers county and school employees have to deal with.

A number of Hastings organizations partner to offer MEALS, a free summer lunch program for kids, youth and adults. There are several bus stops around the city to provide transportation to the meals.

Along with other resources year round, Hastings Family Service offers back to school supplies at the end of the summer.

Layers of vulnerability

The Wilder study reported that before becoming homeless one-third of youth up to 24 years old remained in an abusive situation because they felt they had nowhere else to go.

Around 90 percent of young people facing homelessness have already experienced some kind of trauma, such as sexual abuse, living with a substance abuser, having an incarcerated parent or dealing with serious or chronic mental health issues.

Staffers with The Link, a youth outreach group in Dakota County, hear about these experiences firsthand. They work mostly with youth 18 to 24, seeing many at a drop-in center in Apple Valley.

The Link's Stephanie Plaster said when homeless youth arrive at the drop in center, staff ask if they have ever been tricked into doing things they didn't want to, exchanged sex for resources and if they have any plans to make them happy other than just surviving. Between 30 and 40 of the 160 they talked to last year had experienced one or all of these.

She estimates the number is actually much higher, because staffers are asking these very personal questions the first time they meet. The questions are to determine what kind of services they're eligible for, and though the answers will not be attached to anyone's name, they can still be hesitant to answer honestly.

"We try to provide them with whatever they're in need of ... to make their situation a little safer than it is," Plaster said.

The Link staff provide whatever a person needs to stay safe and healthy — such as food, laundry facilities, clean clothes, gift cards for gas, hygiene products — no matter what kind of housing situation they have worked out.

"Shelters can be scary for people," Plaster said. "Some people want to engage in survival sex rather than go to a shelter."

In these cases, she said, they will provide condoms, pregnancy tests and safe sex kits.

Experiencing homelessness as a young person can add all of these extra layers of vulnerability. Wilder reported that as much as 20 percent have admitted to being attacked or beaten.

It can be difficult for others to pick out these students who need help, and for many of them that's on purpose.

"If they don't want you to know, you're not going to know. ... Image is so important to teenagers," Plaster said. "They're going to figure out a way to be presentable and look good and fly under the radar."

Shelter vs. affordable housing

Homeless teens in Hastings can find counseling services and temporary shelter at The Harbor, but the number of beds is limited.

For young people age 12 to 17, there are 18 beds. Most of those beds tend to be taken up by teens on court-ordered placements, leaving little room for unaccompanied youth who may be without a place to stay.

The Harbor is the only shelter in the area for unaccompanied youth.

Dakota Woodlands Shelter in Eagan serves families, up to 21 at a time, though there is often a lengthy waiting list.

Though shelters are necessary for emergency placement, it isn't the only solution to the problem.

One of Wilder's key findings — that most homeless students coordinators and community services providers tend to agree with — is that the largest barrier for homeless youth is that there's a shortage not only of shelters, but also affordable housing.

Therese Gilbertson, clinical supervisor with Washington County, said there's a shortage of both.

"When I first started, I think I would have put a shelter in the first priority," she said. "But affordable housing is at the same (position) now."

Dakota County's Heading Home organization, made of county staff, representatives from area nonprofits and other community organizations, is working to evaluate and improve the systems currently in place for services, shelter and affordable housing in the area.

Since its initial launch in 2012, the group has grown and started to hold monthly meetings, made new partnerships, added work groups and connected with local school districts to add a focus on homeless students.

By including various organizations in Heading Home, grants can often be secured that don't have to be used with the same strict guidelines based on the definition of homelessness that the county or the school districts have to adhere to.

Bowers said they have added a strong community engagement aspect to Heading Home, made of volunteers who have helped the group with outreach and other assistance.

Brian Kiley, director and founder of the nonprofit homelessness ministry CityGate, noted that homelessness can swiftly turn into an ugly cycle if housing can't be secured.

Over 75 percent of youth surveyed by Wilder in 2015 said they had experienced an earlier episode of homelessness. A quarter of homeless adults had been homeless as a minor.

"Today's homeless youth are tomorrow's homeless," Kiley said.

As teenagers graduate high school or age out of foster care, the services they depended on start evaporating, leaving them with few options he said.

Since 2014, the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness reported a 22 percent increase in homeless youth, though homeless families decreased by 20 percent.

Breaking the cycle

The services offered to teenagers experiencing homelessness, though necessary, often serve more or less as a band-aid to the problem, Kiley said. It takes systemic change to break the cycle. Part of that change is what's known as the housing first approach: getting people a stable place to stay before anything else.

Once they have a place to live — and to unpack their bag — they are more likely to ask for help, Kiley said.

Although the services offered through organizations, the county or the school district keep homeless youth as safe as they can, most providers know that the youth they're working with are still homeless when they leave.

The Link is working with landlords to increase the number of placements they can make locally. Of 19 referrals they did in 2017, 17 of them were placed in homes outside Dakota County.

They're also working on building relationships with landlords, hoping they will take a chance on tenants they otherwise wouldn't.

And when teenagers start out homeless so young, their record follows them.

Plaster said homeless youth often engage in a lot of "survival crime," such as petty theft, trespassing, loitering, "things that if those young people had a home wouldn't be doing," she said. "And now they have a criminal record and they have a harder time finding housing."

The housing first approach, Kiley said, can be the one to get teens out of what could become a lifetime cycle of homelessness, before teenagers run into extra barriers.

There are still barriers students have to deal with between themselves and services they need, but the work is being done to chip away at them.

School districts are working to identify and assist homeless students, as well as feed them with more and more initiatives fighting hunger. There will only be more to come as more students are identified and offered help.

The Dakota County housing crisis line is 651-554-5751.

Michelle Wirth contributed to this report