Rural St. Johns County (FL) Nonprofit's Homeless Youth Project: $1.5 Million Capital Campaign, 16 Beds For Unaccompanied Minors Without Going Out-Of-County, School District Provides Transportation

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More than half of homeless youth become homeless for the first time because they were asked to leave by a parent or caretaker.

That’s according to a study conducted by the Administration for Families and Children.

Though the statistic may be hard to believe, Judy Dembowski said, it’s true. Any number of reasons can be the catalyst — substance abuse, family strain, mental health issues or abuse — according to Dembowski, executive director of the St. Francis Housing Crisis Center and Port in the Storm Homeless Youth Center.

The Port in the Storm Homeless Youth Center was established in a refurbished brick building on Arapaho Avenue to serve as a safety net for young people who are drifting and don’t know where else to turn.

When the 5,200-square-foot facility opened in April 2018 following a $1.5 million capital campaign, it provided daytime services to people under 21, a kind of home base to drop in, do laundry and connect with resources and services. The idea all along, said assistant director Karen Hensel, was to reserve some of the funds to turn a portion of the center into an overnight shelter.

This week’s opening of a dormitory for unaccompanied minors 17 and younger will go one step further in Port in the Storm’s capacity to serve at-risk youth. The 16 beds — eight for males, eight for females — will allow youth who are not allowed at the 18-and-older St. Francis House downtown the chance to stay for the night on a first-come, first-served basis.

Dembowski said the center fills a sorely needed gap in St. Johns County.

“Currently, anytime a young person is in need of shelter, they are sent out of the county,” Dembowski said. “This separates them from their families, their natural supports, their schools and their friends.”

Mixing in younger individuals with older homeless “wasn’t such a good influence, either,” said Hansel.

The shelter, according to Hensel, will operate as a “low-barrier” shelter, meaning the client does not have to prove they are sober to be accommodated. They simply have to agree to follow the rules of the center, such as no on-site drug or alcohol use, no violence or weapons, etc.

“We cannot control what happens off our property,” added Sarah Sherman, program manager.

The St. Johns County School District has agreed to transport any students staying at the shelter to and from school.

Of course, with the help of case managers, the hope is to get youth reunited with family or another stabilizing influence and to make positive changes in their lives, such as education, job training and nurturing relationships.

Over nearly the last year, the Port in the Storm has served about 200 young people just through its outreach and daytime services.

With just 16 beds, Dembowski said she is well aware that shelter demand will exceed capacity.

“We will not maintain a waiting list,” Dembowski said. “We will work with youth through day drop-in to identify safe options — even very short-term — to the streets, and continue to work with them until we identify a long-term solution.”