Nonprofit employing homeless youth seeks permanent location

Koliesha Banks serves a customer at the Wildflyer Coffee
Koliesha Banks serves a customer at the Wildflyer Coffee stand at the Linden Hills Farmers Market. Wildflyer is raising funds to find a permanent location so they can employ more unstably housed youth and provide them with regular hours. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

On a rainy Sunday morning, Koliesha Banks stood behind a booth at the Linden Hills farmers market, brewing and serving fresh coffee.

Banks works for Wildflyer Coffee, a Minneapolis nonprofit organization that seeks to provide job and life skills training to youth experiencing homelessness in the Twin Cities.

Right now, she works weekend shifts at farmers markets, but she’d like to work more and earn enough to get a place of her own to get out of an unstable housing situation that has her bouncing from place to place.

“I’ve been begging them for more hours,” she said.

Currently, Wildflyer can’t offer consistent hours to their workers. The employees work the Fulton and Linden Hills farmers markets from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends and occasionally pick up extra shifts at catered events.

“Our youth want to be working,” said Wildflyer co-founder and executive director Carley Kammerer. “They just don’t have the opportunity right now.”

In June, Wildflyer Coffee began fundraising to acquire a brick-and-mortar location somewhere in South Minneapolis that could create that opportunity. They aim to raise $165,000, with a goal of raising half that sum by the end of the summer.

A permanent home would allow the nonprofit to employ triple the number of workers and give those workers enough hours to earn a real living wage, Kammerer said. Wildflyer currently employs three youth ages 16–24. Since the nonprofit launched in 2017, 11 young people have worked there.

“Our bottom line is our youth,” Kammerer said.

Scope of the issue

On any given night, some 600 youth are without safe shelter in Hennepin County, according to the Wilder Report, which tracks homelessness across the state.

“Youth homelessness, like most homelessness, is very fluid,” said David Hewitt, who directs Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness.

In 2016, the county worked with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago to conduct a single-night count of youth homelessness. The count found 911 people age 13–25 who were homeless or lacked stable housing.

Measuring youth homelessness can be challenging, according to Dr. Heather Huseby, executive director of YouthLink in Minneapolis.

“The youth population is kind of hidden — they’re not the population that’s going to be out on the corner,” she said.

Koliesha Banks serves a customer at the Wildflyer Coffee

In Hennepin County, youth of color and LGBTQ youth are much more likely to experience homelessness. The 2016 count found that 59% of homeless youth were black in a county that’s just 13% African American; 27% of the homeless youth counted identified as LGBTQ. Casey Schliesman, an analyst who focuses on youth in the county’s Office to End Homelessness, believes more strategies are needed to house those from marginalized, overrepresented communities.

YouthLink is one of three drop-in centers for youth experiencing homelessness or housing instability in Hennepin County. Those centers offer assistance in finding employment, housing, health services
and more.

“Homelessness in the youth population has somewhat stabilized, but it was the fastest growing population of homelessness up to this year,” Huseby said.

Each day, YouthLink serves between 120–150 young people in Minneapolis; some come in for a meal, many get assistance from the on-site health and law clinics and others are involved in job training and educational services employment from the 30-plus nonprofits that offer services there.

The issue, Huseby and Hewitt said, is exacerbated by a housing crisis in the Twin Cities. About 94% of people staying in shelters in the county earn about 30% of the area median income, or around $20,000 annually. Currently in the county there are 14,000 units reserved for people at that income level, but about 74,000 people who earn that amount, Hewitt said.

Role of employment

Finding employment for homeless youth is seen by experts as a critical step to getting them to be safely housed, self-sufficient adults, but it can also be a challenge.

“Part of it is their instability,” Huseby said.

People with unstable housing often don’t know where they will be sleeping on any given night and rarely have reliable transportation to get to a job, she said.

They also often lack job experience and might not have learned job skills many people take for granted, such as how to interact with co-workers and show up on time.

The biggest challenge is often finding employers who are willing to be understanding of hurdles for employees facing homelessness, like inconsistent transportation and high stress levels.

“For a lot of our young people, it’s not about getting the job, it’s getting the right job,” Schleisman said.

The Wildflyer program lasts nine months and focuses on developing work and life skills through hands-on employment and classroom learning.

First, new workers get up to speed on the basics of the coffee industry and work in general — appropriate appearance, talking to managers and co-workers, time management, etc. Then youth are enrolled in a personal and professional development course with weekly life skills training sessions on six topics: relationships and communication; daily living; self-care; housing and money management; work and study; career and education planning; and future planning.

“We’re working hard to instill all the skills you need to be successful in work and life,” Kammerer said.

When Wildflyer launched as Gutter Punk Coffee in 2017 at the Whitter Farmer’s Market they were roasting beans in co-founder Ben Griswold’s kitchen. They’ve learned a lot while forming an official nonprofit organization. For Griswold, learning from the program participants who are working through challenging circumstances is just as important as teaching them.

“It’s encouraged me to keep going when things got tough here,” he said.

Now with a well-staffed board and a new subscription coffee service, they feel ready to open their own space.

“That’s always been the dream,” Griswold said.