Home Away From Home
Avenues are a means to an end. A traveler invests time and energy moving from one place to another. And so it is with Avenues for Homeless Youth, a shelter whose mission is “to provide emergency shelter, short-term housing, and support services for homeless youth in a safe and nurturing environment.”
The organization has garnered some national attention, thanks to a queer-specific aspect, its GLBT Host Home Program, which matches homeless gay youth with adult volunteers. That program is presided over by Raquel Simões, who is keenly aware of the enormous responsibility of her position.
Simões says, “The Host Home Program is a community-based program that essentially recruits, screens, and trains adults—most of them from the queer community, but you can be an ally—who then volunteer to open their homes to GLBT youth who need them. Our screening process is more rigorous than that of the Hennepin County Foster Care program.”
That’s a host. What’s a youth, technically speaking?
“The majority of youth who are going to be in host homes are between the ages of 18 and 21,” Simões notes. “We have had some minors in that program, but we can only have a 16- or 17-year-old if their parent signs an authorization.”
Traditionally, being queer has come with its share of stigma, but being queer and homeless is in a league of its own.
“When you think about homelessness, being without a home, there’s obviously a stigma attached,” Deborah Loon, Interim Executive Director of Avenue for Homeless Youth, explains. “For young people, it’s hard enough to fit in at school or find a job. The whole idea of finding a job when you don’t have an address is pretty tough. There’s no doubt that there’s a stigma.”
And stigma noted repeatedly turns into stereotype.
“There needs to be some education on why young people become homeless,” Simões insists. “We look at all the reasons young people become homeless. We look at poverty, eviction, health issues—stuff like that. Once they are homeless, we look at what resources are available. If they can’t access resources, then they’re going to remain homeless. Those are the kinds of things we discuss with the larger community.”
“Our job is to help homeless youth maneuver the system,” Loon relates. “We support them, as they decide which options are best for them. We give them a chance at a happy, productive life, as opposed to a life of homelessness. Without those kinds of stepping-stones, odds are most of them would end up in a life of adult homelessness. Our job is connecting people, and seeing how they can help each other in the process.”
Loon loves her work, but her biggest frustration is its austere limits.
As Loon laments, “If there are about 1,800 or so homeless youth in Minnesota every night, and there are only 49 shelter beds specific to youth—do the math. There’s a big gap. I call it the clog in the system.”
Avenues for Homeless Youth is very much like that hypothetical traveler, investing time and energy for a long-term goal. In this case, the goal is nothing short of a more stable society.
“There’s a lot of need out there,” Loon remarks. “But if you want to put this purely from a political or an economic perspective, it’s a great investment.”
Avenues For Homeless Youth
1708 Oak Park Ave. N., Mpls