On any given night in Minnesota, about 2,500 young people will sleep on the streets. In shelters, on benches and maybe riding around endlessly on a city bus, these youth, ages 12-18, try to keep warm and carry on.
Last Friday night, many of them participated in an overnight effort to raise money for shelters and for homeless youth to help them rebuild their lives.
Called A Night on the Street, it was an annual event that raises thousands of dollars for shelters, transitional housing and basic services desperately needed for youth who sleep out on the streets. Sponsored by Beacon Interfaith Housing, the event brought together young people from every background and faith to learn about homelessness firsthand. Lee Blons. the executive director of Beacon Interfaith Housing, has been an advocate for homeless folks and low income tenants for thirty years.
“The young people — often 13 and 14 years old — are coming tonight to learn about the fact that there’s other young people their age out on the streets, homeless with no place to go,” Blons said Friday as the young people began arriving around 5 p.m., lugging sleeping bags and chatting with friends. Some stood somberly around the Plymouth Congregational Church parking lot as a prayer service kicked off the evening’s event. Plymouth has hosted the event for the last 18 years; this year it raised $25,000 for youth homelessness.
As night approached, temperatures dropped into the low 20′s. The unusual April cold snap gave these Minnesota teens a real taste of what is might be like to be homeless. Cardboard boxes were provided and as 10 p.m. arrived, groups of youth spread out in the church parking lot laying down tarps and bundling up in sleeping bags they brought from home. If some got too cold, there was an option to seek warm shelter in the church –an option many real homeless youth do not have.
“It’s really cold out,’ said one 16-year-old named Jocelyn. “But that’s more realistic, I think. We don’t have control over the weather and neither do they,” she said as she spread out her blankets and bundled up for the night.
Why do young people become homeless? Why would someone at 13, 14 or 18 leave their home and live out in the elements to fend for themselves? For some, their entire family is homeless, a reality for many of the very poor since the burst of the housing bubble and the financial crisis. Some of these same teens are taking care of a child themselves. Some might feel that they are unsafe in the home they grew up in. For many, Blons says, it’s a matter of safety.
“When someone ends up homeless, out on the street at 15, it’s because they think the streets are safer than their home,” Blons explained. “There may be physical or sexual abuse going on. Drug abuse. Things that are too scary at home, so they head out onto the streets thinking it will be safer out there.”
For Katie Junt, a 17-year-old Breck School student, it was her third Night on the Street event. Junt’s a leader both in her school and her church on the issue of homelessness. She convinces students her age to join her and raise money. She remembered the first time she slept in the parking lot. Her legs were numb and tingly after a while, the first signs of frostbite. She said she didn’t get much sleep.
“I didn’t fall asleep that night. It was too cold and it wasn’t that comfortable.” She said she wonders how real homeless youth can be expected to go to school, look for a job or for a house.
“Most shelters kick you out at 6 a.m. There’s nothing open at 6 a.m., so you just wander around,” Junt said.
Governor Dayton is poised to sign the Homeless Youth Act. The bill (HF 698) dedicates $5 million for transitional housing, counseling and additional shelters for those braving the cold. That’s a good thing, says Blons. She’s hopeful that the bill will pass. As it stands now, the bill is part of the House, Health, Human Services and Finance Committee Omnibus bill awaiting its fate before the end of the 2013 legislative session next month. Even if the Homeless Youth Act is adopted, however, Blons doesn’t see Night on the Streets being a thing of the past.
“Being here when it is this cold and to realize that there’s 2,500 (homeless) young people on any given night in Minnesota… We have about 250 (in the parking lot)… So they can start to multiply that and imagine that somewhere in the state of Minnesota there are young people sleeping in port-a-potties, or maybe on a bus trying to stay warm.”