Advocates of child homelessness push for more shelter in Duluth

It’s nearing 1 o’clock in the afternoon when Kim Crawford heads down the stairs that lead from her office to the Life House drop-in center for homeless and at-risk youth. She’s on her way to ensure the refrigerator is full, the supply room is in order, and the staff is ready to go. Though it’s still early in the afternoon, Crawford knows that in a matter of hours the empty drop-in center will be bustling with children. As she grabs her key to unlock the door, she stops and reflects on something she sees all too often.

Life House youth shelter

“They always line up outside of the front door,” Crawford said about the children who seek services at Life House. “And if we don’t open that door at 3 o’clock, they’ll start banging on it.”

In 1992, Life House became the first youth drop-in center in downtown Duluth, providing hot meals, clothing, educational classes, and emergency services for at-risk and homeless children. By 1996, the nonprofit organization was providing shelter for homeless youth and assisting them in obtaining long-term housing.

Since it opened on West First Street, Life House has annually served an average of 600 youth age 14 to 20 with a variety of services. In 2011, the organization served 654 youth, of which, 33 percent were reported as homeless.

Crawford said the number of homeless children in the area is increasing and Life House can’t accommodate everyone who seeks shelter from the organization. She said 26 percent of youth served by Life House were reported as homeless in 2010. This number has increased in 2011 to 33 percent.

“On any given night, 75 to 125 kids are homeless in Duluth,” said Crawford, the executive director of Life House. “There aren’t any age appropriate places or enough places for them to go. We are the only at-risk homeless youth drop-in center in the region.”

Limited shelter for homeless youth

When it comes to housing facilities for homeless youth, Life House and Lutheran Social Services (LSS) in Duluth have a combined total of 23 beds throughout the area.

“They’re always full,” Crawford said. “I think that’s just horrible because when a kid comes in and looks at us and says, ‘I know you can help me,’ and we can’t. We have to say we can’t house you today or tomorrow either.”

Life House runs 13 of the total 23 beds for homeless youth and makes them available for ages 16 to 20. The organization has 11 beds in a Morgan Park building and two beds in apartments located throughout Duluth. Crawford said the apartments are used to teach youth how to budget their money and eventually get their own housing.

The other 10 beds are run by LSS in Duluth. The organization rents the third floor of the Life House building and has six beds available there. In addition to those, LSS has four beds in the Bethany Crisis Center in Morgan Park as part of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Program.

“Unfortunately, the dollars are getting tighter, and the need is growing greater,” said Cathy Bergh, director for youth, children and family services at LSS. “We have a huge array of services for children, youth and families in town, but we’ve been spread out in the community. What we do need is affordable beds for youth.”

Bergh said the 21-day program at Bethany Crisis Center is aimed at reuniting children 17 and under with their families. She said LSS has no authority to put children into foster care, an issue that is controlled by St. Louis County.

Bergh added that youth are allowed to stay in the beds located in the Life House building for up to 18 months, but the average length of occupation is five and a half months. She said between October 2006 and September 2010, 618 youth applied for one of the six beds. Due to the limited amount of space, the organization was only able to accommodate 9 percent of the youth who applied.

Homeless youth are not always unaccompanied. A 2009 statewide study by Wilder Research, part of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, showed that out of 9,654 homeless adults and youth in Minnesota, 2 percent are unaccompanied minors ages 12 to 17. The same study showed that 34 percent were homeless children accompanied by their parents.

“The largest increase has been in youth homelessness among young people age 18 to 21,” said Liz Kuoppala, director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. “The biggest story is we know how to end homelessness. We just need to scale up the will and public awareness.”

Aside from Life House and LSS, other local organizations are providing shelter to homeless youth, but for those that are part of a homeless family.

Churches United in Ministry (CHUM), a nonprofit organization located on West Second Street, has a family shelter with four units. Individuals 18 and older with children are allowed to stay in the shelter, and when those units are full, families are housed in a congregate shelter.

“What we are seeing happening is more and more families with very small children coming in,” said Mary Schmitz, development director at CHUM.

Schmitz said the number of families CHUM houses has gone up from 55 families in 2010 to 70 families in 2011.

This isn’t an increase being seen solely in Duluth. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, more than 1.6 million children experience homelessness annually. A Wilder Research study from 2009 estimates that 13,100 people in Minnesota are homeless on a given night.

“Sometimes people say you can’t end homelessness, but we end homelessness for individuals everyday,” Kuoppala said. “If we think of ending homelessness for the individuals experiencing it, that is very much possible.”

The effects of child homelessness

For Crawford and the staff of Life House, addressing the basic needs of homeless and at-risk youth is the goal. Crawford said the reasons local youth seek services from the Life House drop-in center are widespread and can include domestic abuse, chemical abuse, or alcoholism within their family.

“The kids that come to us don’t trust adults, nor should they,” Crawford said. “They know mom or dad is a crack addict or an alcoholic or that their parents are violent. We try to show them something else. We want them to be positive, contributing members of our community.”

Because of the limited number of beds in Duluth, homeless youth are forced to find alternative accommodations for shelter.

“The majority of our kids couch hop,” Crawford said. “You and I are friends, my couch is in the basement, and my parents are upstairs. So when my parents wake up, I boot you out.”

“Sex trafficking has become a big issue with kids that are just trying to survive and get by,” Bergh said. “They’ll do anything to get a few dollars to support themselves.”

Local advocates of child homelessness have seen the effects that homelessness has on youth. Crawford said many of the youth who come to the Life House drop-in center have faced abandonment and abuse.

“Our foremost goal is to present them with a positive adult role model, someone they can trust,” Crawford said. “We need to let these kids know that there are people in this community that they can trust.”

Research by the National Center on Family Homelessness shows that homeless children experience higher levels of acute and chronic health problems and are sick four times more often than other children. It also shows that homeless children are four times more likely to show delayed development.

“Many of them are behind in school,” Crawford said. “We try to help them learn job skills, how to interview, how to dress for a job, and showering before you go to work. Nobody taught these kids this. It’s not common sense.”

Of the youth Life House served in 2011, nearly 80 percent displayed an increase in academic achievement in a 6 month time period, according to the organization. Additionally, 78 percent of youth remained in safe housing for at least six months.

Despite the success of Life House and other area shelters, the number of youth without housing is still on Crawford’s mind as she prepares for a busy afternoon at the drop-in center.

“There needs to be more affordable housing for everybody in our community,” Crawford said. “For me, it’s someone coming in and being abused. You don’t want to be trafficked anymore. You don’t want to see your parents beating the crap out of each other anymore. And we have to say we can’t do it.”

“Too often they’re portrayed as those kids, and they’re really our kids” Bergh said. “We need to make sure we’re taking care of them.”

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