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Getting teen homelessness out of the shadows
During the summer months, Jo Clark is hitting the local garage sales to find good deals. The deals aren’t for her — or anyone she knows.
Clark, executive director of StandUp for Kids in Bremerton, is searching for essential items, such as warm coats, for homeless kids who may not have them.
“I encourage an attitude of empathy rather than scorn, especially since it’s becoming so prevalent,” Clark said of teen homelessness.
The Bremerton chapter of StandUp for Kids started in Kitsap County in 1992 and was resurrected in 1998 when Clark joined. StandUp for Kids is a national nonprofit spread across 28 states in the country that supports homeless and at-risk youths.
Although not always easy to calculate the numbers of homeless teens since some do not identify themselves as being homeless if they are crashing on a friend’s couch or find shelter for one night, Clark said numbers are “definitely on the rise.”
This school year, Clark’s organization provides meals for 20 homeless students in two Bremerton schools while last school year they were serving 14. The group also provides 180 healthy snacks daily and 13 Kitsap Transit bus passes a month for homeless youths. Teen homelessness is not only a problem in Bremerton but in North and South Kitsap as well, Clark said.
“Homeless happens everywhere,” she said.
They come into homelessness for various reasons. Some could be drug and alcohol related, others could be a lack of an adult role model and on the rare occasion they are kids leaving home to lessen their parents’ burden of feeding them, said Clark. A lot of the kids go to school without eating breakfast — some having to even skip dinner the night before, she said.
“How they handle it, I really don’t know,” Clark added.
Each year the federal government requires all states to conduct homeless counts and the report for 2011, which was conducted in winter 2010, states that 108 of 633 homeless Kitsap County families have children. The number of households without adults — kids identifying themselves as homeless — was three, said Phedra Elliot, with Kitsap Continuum of Care Coalition.
“Any group that works with teens knows that they don’t want to be associated with homelessness,” said Elliot. “In reality the numbers are much higher.”
StandUp for Kids helps the students that school counselors identify but also those who have dropped out of school. The organization supports those who live in the woods or in cars.
Clark said she has one volunteer that gives her cellphone number out to the homeless youths and she sometimes receives phone calls from them and will meet them at McDonald’s or somewhere nearby to provide them with some food or a sleeping bag.
“All of them are important,” Clark said. “But if we can keep them in school — that’s our big desire.”
Aside from providing food for homeless kids, volunteers also mentor some of the students who are in school. Clark said she has about 30 volunteers who do a variety of tasks from driving food donations to schools to working directly with the youths.
And, a lot of the money that goes toward funding the services comes without asking — though in a down economy, more is always helpful. Clark said they receive donations from many local churches, the tribes, Silverdale Rotary Club, individuals and other organizations.
In addition to StandUp for Kids, Coffee Oasis in Bremerton has also been advocating for homeless teens for the past 15 years. The shop on Burwell Street not only serves up coffee but is an outreach and job training site for homeless youths and teens, working both with those in school and on the streets. They have trained mentors and licensed case managers that work with the teens, said Dave Frederick, of Coffee Oasis.
Although Coffee Oasis has a drop-in center in Port Orchard for teens and have started discussions on having another one in Poulsbo, Frederick and others have not given up on building a homeless teen shelter.
“We want to provide that piece to have some stability — so they keep coming to case management meetings,” said Frederick. “It’s also an unmet need.”
There are homeless shelters for adult women and men, but none solely for teens in Kitsap County. There are five underage youth shelters in the state, according to Frederick.
After acquiring the property and building that Coffee Oasis sits on in Bremerton at the end of last summer, original plans included beginning construction of the temporary homeless shelter in January.
Frederick said the cost of the purchase and including construction was $700,000. That money came in primarily through grants and donations but the reason construction hasn’t begun is because bids came in $200,000 more than estimated, Frederick added.
The hope is that through continuous donations, construction of the eight-bed facility for 13 to 17-year-olds will begin in February and be ready for operation sometime in June, said Frederick. Coffee Oasis currently works with 13 to 25-year-old homeless people and will continue to provide its mentoring, outreach and case management programs.
Last year, Coffee Oasis had about 600 different teens and young adults came to the drop-in center.
“Sometimes we think of [the homeless] as being older, but the younger age needs help, too,” Frederick said.