Homeless youth: 'They're hiding in plain sight'

New host home program aims to fill a gap


March 1, 2024

Jana Peterson

The new United Way office next to Premiere Theatres in Cloquet has an sort of mini-apartment in the back where young people can find refuge in stressful times. Kids who are being removed from a situation of domestic violence, for example, could wait there instead of the back of a squad car for grandma and grandpa. Teenagers who are unhoused could meet with social workers and others there, take a shower, do laundry, peruse the donated clothing and tap into the new "host home program" spearheaded by United Way to find a place to live.

She just couldn't take it anymore.

Life at home was not good. "The family dynamic was not safe," said Cat, a high school senior. Her friends could see it, a few encouraged her to move out.

"They could see the decline in my mental health, how I was behaving, and even my overall appearance," said the high school senior.

Cat did not share any details of her home life and the Pine Knot is not using her given name in order to preserve her privacy.

"I just reached a point where my mental health declined so much that I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to make it to the next month," she said. "So, pretty much I moved out of my house when I turned 18."

She slept on a couch at a friend's house for a while. Cat was still in school, but not sure if she could continue her education. She didn't have the resources to support herself, even though she had a warm place to sleep.

Anyone familiar with the instability created by not having a bed to call one's own knows Cat is not alone.

There are other "unhoused" teenagers in Carlton County, a term those who work with them prefer. They don't meet the big-city stereotype of homeless youth, panhandling on the street, sleeping on park benches. Many also don't meet the bureaucratic definitions that might come with services: they don't need a foster home; they don't need child protection.

The reasons a young person ends up unhoused are many. There might be substance abuse in the home or domestic violence. A parent might not accept a child's sexuality or might have another strong difference of opinion. Often, the teenager's parent or guardian is allowing them to move out, but they're also not giving them any support.

Most end up couch-surfing with friends and extended family, sometimes until things get better at home. Other times, they never return home.

"Most of us know someone or have heard of someone who's letting their kid's friend stay at their house," said Sarah Buhs, executive director of the United Way for Carlton and Pine counties. "You just don't realize they're homeless."

"They're hiding in plain sight," said Josh Hagen, Carlton County family and community liaison, adding that surveys show 5 percent of Carlton County students are homeless each year. He believes the number is higher.

Laura Nilsen, a job and youth counselor with JET (formerly NE MN Office of Job Training) is boots on the ground with many of these young people as a career and youth counselor. She meets them at local schools, like she did with Cat, and connects them with programs Nilsen runs. Through JET, teens and adults can find or train for jobs or pay for college if they meet certain eligibility requirements, one of which is being homeless.

Nilsen calculated she averages five to eight "unhoused" youth on her caseload list at any one time. She connects with unhoused students as soon as possible with the goal of developing relationships and helping them be as independent as possible.

"With Cat, she worried her parents were right, that she couldn't do it on her own," Nilsen said. "I was like, 'You can do that. You just need the right people in your corner and the community services and support.'"

Nilsen and Hagen are often the first contacts for unhoused youths. Nilsen has been in the schools for three years. Hagen, whose position as family and community liaison is relatively new, will go almost anywhere in the county to meet someone with his "rolling resource closet" - aka the trunk of his car, packed with things a person might need. Between them, they can offer help and also know a long list of other organizations in the community willing to step up.

Any young person who needs help can call or text Hagen at 218-451-6517 or email Laura Nilsen at [email protected] or find her at school.

Troy Homstad, who has been working as an embedding social worker with the Cloquet Police Department for nearly three years, also sees a number of kids who fall into the gaps between needing social services and feeling safe at home.

He recalled a 14-year-old who spent four or five hours in the back of a squad car - although he had done nothing wrong - because there was no place for him to go. Home was not an option, because his parents were gone.

Carlton County closed its youth shelter in October 2022, so that wasn't an option either. Eventually, he went to stay the night with his girlfriend's grandmother.

"Homelessness, especially youth homelessness, presents itself in our rural counties differently than a larger city," Homstad said. "We don't have a shelter; we don't have any of those drop-in type centers where some of those kids might meet or congregate."

Hagen said kids here find places to stay, "but they're just surviving, by very small amounts."

Host homes

A collaboration is stepping into the gap, at least for unhoused young people in the county. Non-profit and faith-based groups such as the Salvation Army, United Way and Community of Hope are working with local law enforcement, schools, JET and Carlton County to try to address the problem without duplicating services.

"What I will always go back to is, just because a 14-year-old can and does meet their own basic needs doesn't mean that they should," Buhs said. "As a community, our responsibility is to provide some support for these kids when they fall into some of those gap areas where traditional county systems may not pick them up."

Buhs and the board of the newly expanded United Way of Carlton and Pine County Area have been planning a more active role in helping youth for close to a year now.

The nonprofit recently moved, and created a resource center where unhoused youths can go in its new office area next to Premiere Theatres. Kids can hang out there for a few hours instead of being stuck in the back of a squad car when they can't go home. There is Wi-Fi, television, extra clothing, toiletries, sweatpants and a giant pile of squishmellows - a very huggable combination of a stuffed animal and a pillow.

A groundbreaking "host home" program is also being unrolled by United Way with help from Carlton County Human Services to house the unhoused youths. The goal is to find volunteer hosts willing to open their homes to a young person and provide a safe and stable environment for them while they work toward securing permanent housing or choosing to return to permanent guardians.

A news release on the program states that through the host home program, "youths will have access to resources, guidance and mentorship to help them navigate their current situation and plan for a better future."

Host homes are not new, Hagen said. People have been opening their homes to kids in the community for a very long time. But this program will provide support to both the kids and the hosts.

"It's going to be a decision by the youth and the host home," Buhs said. "The goal isn't, 'Hey, there's nowhere to live, you're going to live with these people.' It's going to be 'sit down here in this room, have some conversations, and see if this is a good match.' See if the youth wants to live with them, and give it a try."

Although host home participants will have background checks and some training, the requirements are minimal, compared to foster care, for example. There is funding to help cover the extra costs of housing kids.

Homstad and United Way will work with hosts. Hagen will provide case management for the unhoused teens; his salary and other costs are covered by a local homeless aid grant from the state for nearly $78,000 annually over five years. The former truancy officer and Restorative Justice coordinator is hoping other grant funds will bump him to full-time from 30 hours a week, because the need is there.

Hagen and others will find out what each host is willing to do: When is it OK to call on them? Do they want to provide short-term or long-term stays? Are they willing to share their home with a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or questioning youth?

The host home program is its infancy, with the list just getting started. Want to know more? Go to http://www.unitedwaycarltoncounty.org and find the "homeless youth program" under the Community Impact header, or stop by the United Way office at 902 Highway 33.

Meanwhile, Shari Olson and Community of Hope volunteers are working with area churches to organize community meals, see communityofhope216.org for details or the Pine Knot community calendar. Community of Hope is a faith-based nonprofit that aims to express "the love of Jesus Christ by providing daily necessities as well as hope for the future to those in need." Olson is exploring the county for buildings that could serve as shelter for those in need.

Stepping forward

When Cat's high school principal told her there were programs that could help her earlier in the school year, she didn't jump at the opportunity.

"It sounded too good to be true," she said. "Who would give help out to somebody like me?"

So, she procrastinated.

"When I finally did [reach out], they provided me with so much help," she said. "I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to make it to school or be able to have the necessities to clothe myself, to feed myself. Now I have money to go to school, and come back through gas cards."

Nilsen and the others are helping her find her way through her current situation and beyond. Nilsen and Cat are also looking at options for college.

"The whole United Way program and JET program has been very open to me, and very considerate," Cat said. "They've been a family outside of a family."

Cat said she had two wishes:

Jana Peterson

The United Way has "go bags" with sweat pants, socks, a full toiletries bag, a squishmellow and other items that a teenager who is recently homeless might need.

One, that kids could more easily find out about the resources she has discovered. Two, that kids who don't feel they can live at home anymore know they can leave.

"Take the leap of faith," Cat said. "It might sound scary, but it will make you able to do things your parents say you can't do. I don't feel like I can't make it to next month anymore. I have a hopeful outlook about the next day - what is this opportunity going to bring to me?"

For your information

Want to know more about resources for unhoused or homeless youth or the new “host home” program? Go to http://www.unitedwaycarltoncounty.org, click on the Community Impact header and find the “homeless youth program,” stop by the United Way office at 902 Highway 33 or call 218-879-8404.

Any homeless or potentially unhoused young person who needs help may also call or text Josh Hagen at 218-451-6517, email Laura Nilsen at [email protected], or find Nilsen at school.


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