A haven for homeless youth

Kentura’s four-year homelessness odyssey began when her mother learned that she is a lesbian.

“I was living with my mom but we kinda clashed due to my sexuality. When I was 16 she kicked me out and reported me as a runaway. As I got older, sometimes I would just leave,” Kentura, 20, said, adding that she has spent the past two years couch-crashing with friends.

But thanks to the new Nicollet Square housing development, she and 41 other Twin Cities youths without stable housing now have the opportunity to live in their own apartment and receive employment training and emotional support intended to help them eventually become self-sufficient citizens.

The $9.5 million development, located in Kingfield at 3700 Nicollet Ave., features 42 studio apartments, offices for four full-time staff that work with tenants, a front desk manned day and night by a security guard controlling entry into the building, an exercise room, computer lab, and shared community space complete with a large flat-screen TV.

Residents are generally between the ages of 18 and 21, and all 42 of them are transitioning out of homelessness or aging out of foster care.

The Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation serves as project developer, but funding is derived from a variety of public and private sources, including federal stimulus funds ($6 million), the City of Minneapolis ($1 million), the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency ($883,000), Westminster and Plymouth churches ($350,000), Partner Equity ($283,000) and the Pohlad Foundation ($250,000), among others.

Tenants pay $205 per-month in rent during their first two years at Nicollet Square — a cost far below the market-rate for comparable 350-square-foot apartments featuring brand new paint jobs and appliances. Rent increases to $305 per-month if a tenant stays longer than two years and to $405 if they stay longer than three.

“What’s important is that the young person gets to decide when they leave, and not us,” said Lee Blons, executive director of the PCNF.

An ‘employment-focused’ program

Residents at Nicollet Square are expected to work. If a youth is unemployed, one of the full-time staff based in the building will meet with the tenant one-on-one to set up a paid internship.

“What [tenants] learn here is that you work, you get paid, then you pay rent,” Blons said.

Some tenants have already started working at places like neighborhood thrift stores, pizza joints and coffee shops. The long-term goal is to get some tenants working for a retail partner operating out of the building’s retail space along Nicollet, but Blons said the downturn in the economy has complicated efforts to attract commercial development.  

Kentura, who moved into Nicollet Square late last month, works for Tree Trust, a St. Louis Park-based nonprofit that provides hands-on employment opportunities for disadvantaged Twin Cities youth.

Her job is to help build homes for low-income families in North Minneapolis. On the day we spoke, she had been using a circular saw to cut timbers. She said she hopes to eventually work full time in some sort of hands-on trade.

She said that after paying rent and stocking up her impressively bountiful refrigerator, her remaining income goes into savings. Her hope is to soon purchase a TV and couch so that she can comfortably host company in her new apartment.

Though the project emphasizes developing independent living skills, the nonprofits and charitable organizations involved in Nicollet Square do help tenants acquire some of the basic furnishings.

A room on the building’s third floor is stuffed with lamps, mattresses, dishes and silverware, garbage cans, and other items that homeless youth almost never own. Tenants can take items from the thrift store-like room free of cost.

Katie Miller, YouthLink project supervisor and one of the four full-time staff with an office in Nicollet Square, has over a decade of experience working with homeless youth.

“Some youth will live in a spot for six months, and I’d go in, and it’d look like they could bounce like that,” she said, snapping her fingers to emphasize the point.

“They didn’t know how to settle down, to trust it, to own it.”

Part of Miller’s job is to help tenants make the physical and psychological transition from couch-crashing or living on the streets to getting comfortable in their own apartment.

When we first arrived at her room, Kentura was reluctant to let visitors into her apartment, explaining that she was embarrassed because clothes were strewn on the floor and dishes were sitting in the sink.

But Miller reassured her that routine messes of this sort wouldn’t typically preclude a renter from hosting company.

“It’s your place — of course there are going to be clothes on the floor,” Miller said.

Kentura relented and let us in her room. Her apartment was almost spotlessly clean and orderly, and her bed was made.

Kentura’s journey not unique

After two years of crouch-crashing, Kentura was running out of places to go.

“I started to get low on friends,” she said.

“Living with friends, sometimes I would get uncomfortable, or you could tell when people get tired of you being in their space.”

Homelessness coincided with a period where Kentura was bouncing from school to school, struggling to fit in. This fall, she began studying in a GLBT-friendly environment at the Sabathani School in the Bryant Neighborhood, and things have clicked for her from there in more ways than one.

A school administrator told her about Nicollet Square a few months ago. She filled out a rental application, won a lottery for a room, interviewed with Miller, and got the call last month letting her know she could move in.

“I’m happy being that I’ve never had anything to call my own. I’ve got my own space, and it’s a place where I can get away when I don’t want to be bothered,” Kentura said.

Her plan is to work for Tree Trust through the summer and then take some college credits next fall. But more immediately, she wants to get her new apartment furnished so that friends don’t have to sit on her bed when they visit.

Kentura said that despite their falling out, she remains close with her mother.

Regarding her mother’s perspective on her sexuality, Kentura said “it’s just something new to her and I don’t think she thought she would have to deal with it. It’s different when one of your kids is like that, but I don’t feel I should have to be somebody different in front of her. I try to be myself, and sometimes she doesn’t like it.”

A Wilder Foundation study published last October found that 8 percent of homeless youth in Minnesota cite lack of tolerance for their sexual orientation or gender as part of the cause or a main cause of their homelessness.

Furthermore, of the 12 percent of homeless youth who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, 46 percent cite lack of sexual tolerance as a cause of their homelessness.

“It’s a really significant reason why youth become homeless. [Kentura’s] story is really symbolic of a significant number of kids,” Blons said.

Youth homelessness in Twin Cities at unprecedented levels

The same Wilder study indicates that the need for projects designed to provide housing for homeless youth has never been more urgent.

On Oct. 22, 2009, the study counted 1,268 homeless youth throughout Minnesota. These youth (where ‘youth’ is defined as a person under 21) either had no permanent residence, were staying in a shelter or had a nighttime residence in a place not meant for human habitation.

The total of 1,268 homeless youth represented a 46 percent increase over Wilder’s last survey, which was conducted in 2006. The study states that the increase in youth homeless is especially alarming given that the number of youth shelter beds, particularly for youth 17 and under, has remained flat since 2003.

But while acknowledging that the scope of the homelessness problem goes far beyond Nicollet Square, Blons said that staying focused on doing what she and her organization can do to end homelessness keeps her from being overwhelmed.

The PCNF “ is the first to say that this is just the beginning. Nicollet Square is great, but it’s not enough,” Blons said.

“Rather than saying, ‘oh gee, the economy tanked, now we can’t end homelessness,’ for us it’s the opposite,” she said. “Wait a minute, now we need to do more than ever.’”

Reach Aaron Rupar at [email protected]