The Northfield Union of Youth is addressing one of the most hidden issues in town: teen homelessness.
The Union of Youth, better known as The Key, recently received a $75,000 grant from the Youth Homeless Act to add additional staff to work with kids who frequent the Sixth Street center.
According to Youth Moving Forward, Minnesotans under 21 are the most likely to be homeless.
“We did an informal survey in 2016 of about 100 kids who are our core,” Key Executive Director Scott Wopata said. “Around 20-25 had recently experienced some form of homelessness. We confirmed that number reviewing numbers at the ALC (Area Learning Center). That totaled about 30-35 kids through self-reporting. We got the youth board together and started with the question, what would help?”
The grant lasts for two years and will allow The Key to hire a full-time licensed social worker. The grant is aimed at finding innovative solutions for youth experiencing or who are at risk of experiencing homelessness, Wopata said.
Having a social worker at the Key is important, Wopata said, because it provides kids a chance to talk with a licensed social worker outside of a school environment.
The Key is also working on a program where it can train and support host families for kids who need emergency housing.
There aren’t many options out there for teens who need a place to stay away from home. But that’s common across the state, said Social Services Director Mark Shaw.
“We struggle to find foster care providers,” Shaw said. “We’re always trying to recruit more foster care providers.”
All of the county’s foster homes are filled, though 55 percent of children in out-of-home-placement living with relatives. That means staff are constantly looking to get more adults in the community licensed as foster parents. The county has about 40-50 foster care providers, according to Shaw, but most prefer taking in younger children.
A rise in child protection reports is creating even more of a need for foster families or emergency house for children. Between 2012 and 2016, child protection reports in the county more than doubled, going from 662 to 1,394. That’s on pace to reach over 1,500 in 2017. In Rice County, there are 120 children in out-of-home placements, according to Shaw. Of that number, 98 have a child protection designation.
Hennepin County began a 100-day challenge to combat youth homelessness Aug. 2 with the goal to help 150 youth between the ages of 16-24 exit homelessness into stable housing and secure employment for 75 percent of the group. That county joined Baltimore, Columbus, Ohio, Palm Beach County, Florida and Louisville, Kentucky in part of a nationwide challenge.
Rice County is taking steps to address the increasing issues. In January, the county Board of Commissioners accepted a Minnesota Finance Agency Bridges grant for $136,000 to provide income-based assistance to people with serious mental illness, those experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness.
On Tuesday, the county board approved a contract with Dan Dimick, a Northfield psychologist, to lead a group therapy program for parents with children placed outside the home.
The county also provides respite housing options, Shaw said.
“If the kid needs to get out for a couple of days we do have some respite programs available,” Shaw said. “The program that The Key is working on is filling a gap that there aren’t services for.”
Wopata said The Key isn’t trying to replace child protective services with the a host family program.
“A program like this that can complement and make sure youth are at the forefront to solve these issues is powerful,” Wopata said.
Wopata expects to find a licensed social worker within eight weeks.
“Our goal is to find a system that works,” Wopata said. “It’s our responsibility to make a system that works.”