Wilder report: State has more than 2,000 homeless youth

Panelists from local agencies discuss youth homelessness at The Bridge for Youth. Credit: Photo by Michelle Bruch

The latest snapshot of youth homelessness contains bad news and good news. The bad news: the number is high. A September report by Wilder Research estimates 2,211 youth ages 17 and under are homeless in Minnesota. The good news: Nearly all minors, 95 percent, are now enrolled in school.

A panel discussion of community leaders at TheBridge for Youth on Oct. 22 zeroed in on parents and strong family ties as the next linchpin to help fix youth homelessness.

“We’ve got the children; we’re figuring that out,” said Sherenia Gibbs, community outreach supervisor for Minneapolis Parks and Recreation. “We can make huge strides if we can get the parents on board.”

Youth are called the “hidden” homeless. They tend to couch-hop and avoid emergency shelter, according to Wilder Research. Youth are also likely to forego shelter altogether — 23 percent said they spent a night outside in the last month, perhaps in a car or abandoned building.

Their top reasons for leaving home included frequent fighting with parents (some abusive), being locked out, the family lost housing, or they were not willing to live by parents’ rules.

An overwhelming number, 69 percent, had at least one parent incarcerated.

“That’s a new story we need to tell,” said Michelle Gerrard, research manager at Wilder.

The incarceration stat stood out for V.J.Smith, president of MAD DADS.

“We can’t arrest our way out of the problem, because a lot of times, that’s causing even more problems,” he said. “Mom’s trying to hold up the financial piece and working two jobs. We see a lot of that in the community.”

To help, MAD DADShosts a support group that draws 70-80 families each week. They serve a meal, provide daycare, and teach parenting classes.

“A lot of parents don’t know how to have healthy relationships,” Smith said. “Their fathers and mothers never taught them what real parenting was.”

The Park Board is also targeting parents with its year-old “ProjectReconnect.” Instead of sending young troublemakers to the police station, staff can opt to send them home. The kid can’t come back to the park until the parents schedule a series of family mentoring sessions.

Parents’ reactions surprised Gibbs.

“Parents wanted us to reach out to them,” she said. “They want help, they just don’t know what to do.”

Parent outreach can be a challenge for schools, said Elena Shaw, Minneapolis Public Schools’ high school support liaison for homeless and highly mobile students. New immigrant Latino families, for example, often work long hours and don’t have time for potlucks.

“For many, school was not a positive experience for them when they were young,” she said.

The Police Department is trying to do more parent outreach. 5th Precinct Inspector Tony Diaz said truancy and curfew laws are a high priority for officers out of concern for the youth. If officers have time, they take a few extra minutes to see what’s happening in the home, Diaz said.

“We want to develop good relationships with police, rather than just slap the cuffs on,” he said. “Getting out of the squad car is the first step. This is a priority from the Chief all the way down to the officers.”

The chaos of home life is something youth must learn to navigate, saidGerrard — even youth who age out of foster care often return to their parents. Just under half of homeless youth say they would live with their parents again, according to Wilder Research.

“Kids always go home,” Gerrard said.

There is reason for new hope, she said —recent legislative funding for homeless youth services increased tenfold. And the large  numbers of homeless youth at school is another reason for optimism. Panelists at The Bridge for Youth think the next step is targeting entire families.

“We need to bring parents on board, and let them know they’re not in this alone,” Gibbs said. “Our weakest link is our parents.”