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Minneapolis's innovative attempt to help homeless kids

As part of a broader effort to stamp out homelessness, the city focuses on aiding young children and families to break the cycle of destitution. Second in a four-part series. 

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    Navares Ladd spent years living at a shelter for runaway youth in Minneapolis. Today, he lives in a subsidized apartment with support services.
    Courtesy of YouthLink
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Amanda Manery was 16 years old the first time she slept outside. She spent most of her childhood in foster care while her mother, who struggled with methamphetamine addiction, cycled in and out of prison. Amanda decided to risk living on the streets after learning her foster mother intended to give her away.

“I couldn’t possibly explain to anybody how much that hurts when somebody says, ‘I don’t love you and you have to go,’ ” says the now 22-year-old.

Today Amanda is off the streets. She and her 2-year-old son live in Minneapolis’s Archdale Apartments, one of the nation’s first supportive housing complexes for homeless youth. She is the beneficiary of a pioneering patchwork of programs in Minneapolis aimed at curbing two of the most disturbing groups of homeless in America – kids and families. 

“If we’re ever really going to get serious about breaking the cycle of homelessness, we’re going to have to focus on the youngest children,” says Daniel Gumnit, director of a 350-bed shelter, People Serving People, here.

Youth and family homelessness is a stubborn problem nationwide. Federal statistics suggest that nearly 200,000 young people are homeless in the United States on any given night. More than 2.5 million different youths are homeless over the course of a year. 

Minnesota isn’t immune to the problem. The Minneapolis Public School system estimates that 4,000 students were homeless at some point during the 2014-15 school year. Overall, on a single night last January, 8,377 people were counted as either living in shelters or on the streets in Minnesota, according to a survey conducted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. But advocates say the actual number of homeless people in the state is far higher than that, since many move in with family and friends. 

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Minneapolis’s effort to halt the revolving door of homelessness, particularly for children and families, is considered to be exemplary. In the past few years, a broad coalition of groups – social service providers, the Minneapolis public school district, the Hennepin County government, business leaders, and faith organizations – have come together to target the problem. The empathetic public-private response perhaps isn’t surprising in Minnesota, given its history of civic responsibility rooted in its Scandinavian heritage.

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Barbara Crosby, a University of Minnesota professor who has studied homelessness, says that simply framing the discussion around the goal of ending rather than alleviating homelessness has made a dramatic difference in the way people here have tackled the problem. “Homelessness hasn’t ended yet, but the approach has been radically changed for the better,” she says.

Underlying the effort is a growing understanding of the cyclical nature of the problem: Many children who spend time in emergency shelters with their parents fall back into homelessness as teens, then as young adults, and later as parents of their own children. Indeed, many of the parents staying at the city’s largest family shelter spent time there as children. That’s why Mr. Gumnit says he invests so much of his time, and budget, in early childhood education.

•     •     •

When Amanda turned 18, she found a new sense of freedom. But she also discovered she had no idea how to care for herself. Now that she has a child of her own – and another due in January – she realizes how much she has to learn about being an adult. “I never had any guidance growing up, and now I’m supposed to know how to take care of not just myself but my son,” says Amanda.

Young families with parents under 25 are far more likely to return to emergency shelters than other families. Older parents frequently end up in shelters as a result of a job loss or other isolated event and can rebound relatively quickly. Young parents, however, are less likely to have the job or life skills to move forward.

In 2014, Hennepin County launched a two-year pilot program that incorporates job, education, and parenting services into an existing housing network for 18- to 24-year-old parents. The program currently has the capacity to serve 46 families living in shelters and provide prevention services for an additional 20 families.

Just over halfway through the pilot program, the results look impressive, according to Heidi Boyd of Heading Home Hennepin, a community initiative to end homelessness here by 2016. Data show a 36 percent increase in average monthly income for participants in the prevention program and a 43 percent increase for those accessing the services. Ms. Boyd hopes to secure federal funding to extend and expand the program to as many as 300 families.

The need is most pronounced for minorities. They represent only 15 percent of the population in Minnesota, but make up more than 90 percent of the homeless families and children across the state. For these kids and parents, gaps in education, breakdowns in social support networks, and barriers to employment play as big a role in homelessness as a lack of affordable housing.

“We know what the solutions are,” says Heather Huseby, executive director of YouthLink, a nonprofit advocacy group and drop-in center for homeless youth and their children. “We need to bring our systems together in a cohesive way to make a more cohesive world for these young people who have come from very fragmented worlds.”

YouthLink’s answer is the Youth Opportunity Center, a central hub for young people experiencing homelessness and social agencies that serve them. Each year, 2,000 youths come to the YOC for basic needs such as meals and medical care as well as for counseling, help finding housing, education assistance, and employment services.

Navares Ladd, 20, has benefited from the program. After spending most of his teen years living at a home for runaway children, Mr. Ladd now lives in a subsidized apartment complex with support services. He works 30 hours a week prepping food for the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team and soon hopes to move into his own apartment. 

“I’m good,” he says with a toothy grin. “I’m living on my own, I have a job, and I have people who will help me and guide me. That’s really all that matters.”

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