More Funding Needed for Homeless Teens in Minn.

Updated: 03/23/2013 12:31 PM KSTP.com By: Mark Saxenmeyer

Gov. Dayton's budget calls for a record $5 million to help support programs for teen runaways and homeless youth in Minnesota.

That's up from just $250,000 in the last budget.

Those enlisted in the battle to stop homelessness say the money is desperately needed. They point to the results of the latest Wilder Research Homeless Survey that indicates the number of people experiencing homelessness increased 6 percent from 2009 to 2012.

And of those surveyed in the Twin Cities, 46 percent were under 21 years old.

Kevin Berry personifies those stats

Homeless at the age of 19, he bounced around the homes of friends, acquaintances, and distant relatives, always on the move.

"I don't think i could ever build myself up to go to the shelters," he said. "I think it would have just brought me down worse that i already was. I'd rather couch hop than go to a shelter."

Fast forward four years and Kevin now lives in relative comfort. He has a studio apartment at a youth housing development called Nicollet Square in South Minneapolis. There's a washer and dryer down the hall, a computer room, and an exercise room.

Kevin now works for a moving company and focuses on his artwork. He readily admits that before Nicollet Square, "I was lost. I felt like I didn't have the proper knowledge to make it as a young adult."

There are 42 apartments in the building. Since it opened in 2010, just 58 young people have lived there.They can stay as long as they want but as they gain steady employment, they start paying rent, and the rent goes up as time goes by. The goal is to get them to a point where they're stable and can move out and live independently--and permanently-- on their own.

According to Katie Miller, Nicollet Square's program supervisor, "Most of the young people that move in here definitely have some healing to do. For some it's past abuse, or just the trauma of being on the streets, grief, loss, not having a family system. A lot of the things we may see as negative behavior really allowed them to survive and make it through day to day. So you can't just strip somebody of that over night."

Still, Miller points out, "This isn't a residential treatment center. This isn't a group home. They're signing a lease, starting to merge into the adult world."

"Nicollet Square provides that place for someone to move into, have their own apartment, and get those supportive services, skills, employment and education and really turn around lives," said Lee Blons, the executive director of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, the group that built Nicollet Square and oversees its fundraising. "We need to raise about $30,000 a month in private resources, so right now I've got a gap of $120,000 to raise by June 30th," she explained.

With an estimated 2,500 homeless young people out on the streets on any given night in Minnesota, public funding hasn't kept up. "We've done the math. It's about 13 cents per youth," Blons said. The governor's proposed funding increases would help immensely, but the need for services for homeless youth continues to outstrip available resources.

Blons says Beacon has now purchased property in the St. Paul Central Corridor and hopes to transform it into another youth housing development. Plans are also underway for a third building in the western suburbs. Grants and donations to fund the projects top $1.5 million so far, but they'll still need more.

Kevin simply says there's no doubt Nicollet Square saved him. "Since I've been in here it required me to find stability and that was the main thing. I couldn't learn anything when I was unstable. Being homeless makes it hard to just figure out who you are."

Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at msaxenmeyer@kstp.com