Bridge builders

The Bridge for Youth awarded nearly $1 million for program serving teens in crisis

The Bridge's executive director Daniel Pfarr and Daria Frazier, a youth counselor for the organization's Transitions program. Credit: Photo by Sarah McKenzie

Uptown-based nonprofit The Bridge for Youth has received a major boost from the federal government for its work serving homeless and runaway teens.

The 43-year-old organization in the East Isles neighborhood was recently awarded $930,000 from the United States Department of Health and Human Services for its Transitions program, which provides shelter and services for 16 and 17 year olds.

Daniel Pfarr, executive director of the Bridge, said the federal grant is a “huge win” for youth in the community.

“It gives us five years of funding, which is almost unheard of these days,” he said.

The Bridge’s Transitions program serves about 45 youth each year. Teens can stay up to 18 months at The Bridge when they are part of the program.

About 55 percent of the teens who go through the program end up returning to their families, Pfarr said.

“The community integration of these kids back to supportive parts of their family is essential,” he said. “The notion that kids can live outside of support systems at 16 or 17 doesn’t work. It’s impossible.”

The program serves a niche among Twin Cities organizations serving youth in that it focuses on older teens, said Janet Hallaway, communications and community engagement manager for The Bridge.

“There can be big development differences between a 16 and 17 year old and a youth over the age of 19,” she said. “In Transitions, case managers are sensitive to the needs of this population who may still need a lot of guidance.”

Older teens also face challenges finding work given that youth unemployment remains high.

“So, it can be unrealistic to expect that 16 and 17 year olds can move from a transitional shelter to independent living and make it long term,” Hallaway said. “Families come in all shapes and sizes. When moving back with family is not an option, case managers work with youth to find other safe and stable options for the long haul.”

The Bridge has dorm-style housing, shared living spaces and a community kitchen. Youth are expected to do chores and participate in weekly house meetings, she said. They can also participate in onsite job training programs, including a culinary arts program that has youth working with an on-site chef. 

Overall, The Bridge serves about 1,000 youth each year between the ages of 10 and 18. It specializes in serving youth who have gone through the juvenile justice program, members of the GLBTQ community and those who have faced sexual exploitation.

The organization estimates that 200 to 250 youth who access shelter and services at the Bridge have been victims of sex trafficking, Pfarr said.

Denise Williams, manager of counseling services for the organization, said Bridge staff have been trained to look for signs of sexual exploitation.

Clues include teens who have talked about having to make trades to meet basic needs like clothing, food and shelter, are secretive about relationships and are dropped off in fancy cars or suddenly have expensive shoes or clothing, Williams said.

The Bridge is working with many community partners — including the Minneapolis Police Department, school social workers and health care professionals — to battle juvenile sex trafficking.

Once a youth has been identified as someone who has experienced sexual exploitation, the Bridge encourages two sessions of counseling each week and case management. The goal is to reconnect youth with trusted adults and afterschool activities.

“We try to work with the youth, family and community to provide a layer of protective factors,” Williams said. “The goal is to try to increase the levels of engagement.”

Counselors are also persistent and call the youth at least four times a week to check on how they are doing.

“We’re really trying to reach out as often as possible to say we’re aware of you and we care about you,” she said. “We say ‘come on in, even if it’s just for five minutes.’” 

Statewide campaign

The Minnesota Women’s Foundation has been a leader in raising awareness about juvenile sex trafficking and coordinating work to fight the problem. The foundation’s MN Girls Are Not For Sale campaign has been instrumental in passing legislation that reclassified youth under the age of 16 involved in prostitution as victims instead of criminals. It also increased penalties for promoters, patrons and pimps.

A coalition working on fighting the sex trafficking of youth in the state secured $2.8 million in 2013 to fund the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth legislation for housing and services. The original request called for $13.5 million.

The state recently awarded Safe Harbor grants to St. Paul-based Breaking Free, Heartland Girls’ Ranch in Benson, Minneapolis-based The Link and Life House in Duluth.

Another $2.5 million in state funding for housing and services for trafficked youth is working its way through the legislative process this session.

Vednita Carter, executive director of Breaking Free, said the 2013 funding is a starting point.

“The $2.8 million the Legislature allocated last session is about 21 percent of what we need to fully fund Safe Harbor,” she said in a statement about the state grants.

Beth Holger-Ambrose, executive director of The Link, added that it costs between $280 to $320 a day for supportive services for one youth who has been sex trafficked.

A recent study by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Center, the University of Minnesota and Indiana State University, however, found there is a $34 return on investment for every $1 spent on programs helping sexually exploited youth, she said.

“Providing appropriate safe places to say and heal from trafficking when youth can’t be safely reunited with family is the right thing to do for these youth,” she said.

Hennepin County also recently approved a new work plan to coordinate efforts to fight youth sex trafficking. Its No Wrong Door Response Plan will guide the work of county employees who could come into contact with a young person caught up in trafficking, including law enforcement and mental health workers, among others.