Rise in homeless reaches youth
Second in a series: A journey home
While his classmates looked toward their last year at Burnsville High School with excitement, Michael Woods focused on where he would sleep each night.
For years, his mother kept the family afloat while living paycheck to paycheck. In December 2010, she lost her job and could no longer afford the rent on their apartment.
His mother and three younger siblings moved into a hotel that winter but there was no room for Woods who ended up couch-hopping between friends.
“It was horrible,” said Woods, now 20.
Woods is among a growing number of young people who face homelessness in Dakota County.
Of the 201 Dakota County adults who were homeless in January 2013, 49 of them were individuals ages 18 to 24, according to a Dakota County point-in-time survey. Nearly half of the homeless youth accounted for had young children. Nearly all of these parents were women.
Homelessness among all ages in Dakota County has risen 65.8 percent in the past four years from 661 in 2009 to 1,004 in 2013.
The county has surpassed the statewide increase of 6 percent between 2009 and 2012.
A 2012 Amherst H. Wilder Foundation study found that 46 percent of homeless people in Minnesota are 21 and younger with 1,005 who are ages 18 to 21.
The county’s actual homeless population is likely much higher, said Madeline Kastler, housing resource development specialist for Dakota County,
Since past data lacked a breakdown by age, county officials are unable to compare it to present numbers of homeless youth.
A lack of family support or stability are significant factors in homelessness among youth, Kastler said.
These issues are compounded by the fact that youth often lack work and rental history, Kastler said.
“These all tend to make it more difficult for youth to move out of homelessness on their own,” she said.
In addition to these obstacles, young people face dwindling housing options.
Vacancy rates of rental housing in Dakota County has fallen from 6.7 percent in 2009 to 2.3 percent in 2012, according to the latest data.
“As the foreclosure crisis came through, those people who were homeowners are now renting,” Kastler said. “Those left out, have high barriers.”
Kastler also points to better research efforts as a possible reason for the higher numbers of those who are homeless in Dakota County.
Despite the instability at home, Woods focused on his school work and graduated from high school in June 2011.
Woods reflects on his accomplishment with pride and humility.
“I don’t think about it,” he said. “It’s something I was able to overcome because I want to do more in life.”
Shortly after graduating from high school, Woods was placed on a waiting list for Lincoln Place, a supportive housing complex in Eagan for young adults who are at-risk-of homelessness.
While waiting for temporary housing for himself, Woods remained focused on helping his family out of homelessness.
That summer, he took two part-time jobs and saved enough money to pay a deposit on a rental home in Apple Valley that fall.
Shortly thereafter, Woods was accepted into Lincoln Place but turned it down to stay with his family.
Their time in stable housing was short lived and the family lost the townhome by May 2012.
His mother and younger siblings moved in with relatives in Illinois, while Woods again turned to Lincoln Place.
Lincoln Place, which opened in 2010, has become a primary resource for youths who are at-risk of homelessness, Kastler said.
Owned and operated by the Dakota County Community Development Agency, Lincoln Place is the only supportive housing complex in Dakota County and provides 24 efficiency apartments for singles ages 18 to 24 based on referral. Young people with children are directed to Dakota Woodlands and other housing options for families.
Though Lincoln Place is run by the CDA, Minneapolis nonprofit The Link provides support services.
Tenants are required to pay rent that is based on their income and are prohibited from having drugs or alcohol or overnights guests.
Though there are consequences for breaking the rules, the program aims to redirect clients rather than punish, said Mindy Van Huffel, Lincoln Place program manager.
“Our role is to create an opportunity,” she said. “We advocate for client choice and guide what’s best for them.”
Woods said he doesn’t mind the strict rules.
“It gives me a chance to grow and mature,” he said.
Hope for the future
Lincoln Place clients are assigned case workers who help them manage possible mental health issues, build goals and find work and/or pursue an education.
“We’ve seen a big increase in our youth attending school,” Van Huffel said.
About 60 percent of the residents at Lincoln Place attend college, a vocational school, high school or are completing their GED.
“We always encourage them to work toward their diploma instead of a GED,” Van Huffel said. “It looks better on a resume.”
Clients come from all walks of life. Some come from group homes, others left troubled homes while others struggled with homelessness alongside their families.
Despite resources like Lincoln Place, many teens continue to struggle. At any given moment, Lincoln Place has a waiting list of between 60 and 80 people who are eligible for its services.
Through its Heading Home initiative, which brings together government, businesses and faith communities, county officials are examining whether similar programs should be expanded throughout the county as well as other resources needed to address homelessness among young people.
State officials have developed their own strategy to combat the issue. The Homeless Youth Act passed last spring, provides $8 million over the 2013 biennium to fund services that include shelters, housing, counseling, and education and work support for homeless young adults.
When looking back on his struggle, Woods maintains a positive outlook.
“Nothing is easy,” he said. “You can have something and lose it like that, but you need to be grateful and work hard.”
He’s kept in contact with his mother and siblings who are now living in stable housing.
Today, Woods is again focused on furthering his education. He plans to enroll in Normandale Community College in Bloomington or Minneapolis Community and Technical College to pursue a business degree while working part time at a warehouse in Shakopee.
Woods views education as a path to his own financial stability as well as a means to give back to others.
“I want to be a leader of the next generation and do good in my community,” he said.