When 17-year-old *Jason was working two jobs by day and living in his car by night, he didn’t concern himself with the irony of being a homeless teen in a wealthy suburb. He wasn’t concerned about the sobering statistics on the growing number of homeless teens in the southwest suburbs. What concerned him was surviving.
When Jason’s car broke down he was forced to reach out for help, which is when he discovered Oasis for Youth, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless teens and young adults in Edina, Richfield and Bloomington find stable housing.
“Most of us have a visual image of homelessness, usually of an adult male,” says Andrea Knoll, board secretary of Oasis for Youth, “But the reality is that the majority of homeless people are families with children.”
Teen homelessness has been on the rise. In 2012 a statewide survey done by the Wilder Foundation found 10,214 adults, youth and children who were homeless—a 6 percent increase from the previous year. Half of them were under the age of 21, and half were children without any parents or guardians. The count only included people registered in a shelter system on the day of the study, and since many homeless people aren’t registered in any shelters, this number is an underrepresentation of the problem. This is especially true of the southwest suburbs.
“Teens are one of the hardest groups to count,” explains Knoll, “partially because they themselves don’t always realize that they are homeless. We see a lot of ‘couch hopping,’ where a youth might stay with a friend or family member for a few weeks, then stay with someone else for a couple of weeks.”
The results of this survey were no surprise to Oasis for Youth, which formed in 2007 when seven concerned citizens decided they wanted to provide resources for homeless teens in the Minneapolis suburbs of Edina, Richfield and Bloomington. In 2008, they spent one year researching the problem, and in 2009 they commissioned a needs assessment study. This study confirmed what they already suspected. Homelessness was rapidly climbing, including in the southwest suburbs. No programs existed for helping suburban homeless teens in Edina, Richfield and Bloomington, nor were there any existing programs within the metro area with the capacity to expand to the suburbs. Seeing this gap in services, and knowing that youth fare best when they aren’t forced to leave their community, Oasis for Youth launched in 2010 as a drop-in resource center at Oak Grove Presbyterian Church in Bloomington.
Teens are referred to Oasis for Youth by school social workers, family or friends. Open Monday through Friday from 2:30 to 5 p.m., the nonprofit provides numerous services. Teens receive referrals to crisis shelters and housing programs, job search coaching, on-call tutoring, transportation assistance and help with obtaining county benefits. Case management, mental health counseling and health screening are also available. Caring adults are on-site.
The resource center is set up like a living room, where teens can relax and play foosball, air hockey, watch a movie, play games, use the computer or read. There are free hygiene products and a free clothes closet. Oasis was where Jason could take a warm shower, do his laundry and get a snack and food to go. He was able to get help with transportation so that he could keep his jobs. With the help of the mental health counseling, he was able to reconnect with his family again.
The center participates in a program that trains local families to host a teen to live with them for six to 18 months. Having a place to stay, even for a short time, can help teens get back on their feet again. When 18-year-old *Anita’s landlord abruptly decided to sell the house where she was renting a room, she found herself with no place to live. Oasis found her housing, and she was able to stay there until she finished her post-secondary degree at a local community college. She received on-site mental health services, life skills training, tenant training and case management from Oasis; in time she will be able to find a better job and afford an apartment of her own.
Oasis for Youth understands that teens don’t just need stable housing for a week or month at a time; they need to maintain stable housing and achieve self-sufficiency. With self-sufficiency they can become contributing members of their community.
Editor’s note: To protect the privacy of the clients, the names and some details of the situations of the youth mentioned have been changed.