At some point, almost every young person talks about the cold.
“Even on the warm nights, it’s still cold somehow,” a young woman said.
They express the emotional toll, the shame, the embarrassment, the sense of failure. The fact that none of them chose to be homeless.
These are testimonials given to Hope 4 Youth by some of the more than 4,000 homeless young people in Minnesota. Their stories now are interwoven with Hope 4 Youth’s, a nonprofit organization in Anoka County that has been working since 2012 to help homeless youth in its community. Two St. Thomas alumni, Lisa Jacobson ’88 and John Sitarz ’88, have been at the heart of Hope 4 Youth’s efforts: Jacobson as the organization’s executive director and Sitarz as a board member and lead fundraiser.
“When people think about it, they can all think of a kid who if they knew they didn’t have a place to lay their head at night, it would kill them. They don’t want that. Especially when they realize these are kids in their own community,” Jacobson said. “We can’t have this.”
Sitarz’s daughter introduced him to the issue when she took part in a fundraiser at Andover High School, where six of their students were homeless in late 2012, Sitarz said.
“When I first got involved I was shell shocked that this was going on in our community,” Sitarz said.
For Sitarz and many others around the Anoka County area, Hope 4 Youth soon became the conduit for their energy to do something. After extensive fundraising through that winter, the organization opened the doors of a drop-in center in Anoka in March 2013. That center remains open 2-7 p.m. every weekday and provides basic needs such as food, showers and laundry facilities, as well as resources for accessing jobs, education or health care through its on-site clinic.
“You start meeting with these kids there, hearing their stories, it’s devastating,” Sitarz said. “The first child we welcomed in had been sleeping in a tent for two years. They were 16 years old.”
The volume for the drop-in center has continued to quickly increase, with 732 youth using it in 2016, according to Jacobson. Hope 4 Youth’s leadership began planning for a more permanent option to help young people in their community. A successful fundraising gala in 2013 gave way to an even bigger one in November 2014, where Sitarz pledged that he would raise $1 million by Jan. 1 or spend every day he didn’t hit that mark in 2016 sleeping outside too.
“The vision on that $1 million was us being able to buy a place where we could house kids,” Sitarz said. “There were 400 people there and you could have heard a pin drop [when I announced that]. Everyone was coming up, ‘Are you crazy?’”
It turns out he wasn’t, and his efforts were crucial in Hope 4 Youth securing what is now their permanent housing for 12 youth in Coon Rapids, which opened last November.
“I get so emotionally pumped to know there are 12 kids that have warms beds every night,” Sitarz said, adding that all the residents pay to be there, work or are in school, and are being supported through an 18- to 24-month window before they transition into other living arrangements. “We did one [permanent housing center], we’ve got 12 beds, but we still have so many in need. There are more than 4,000 homeless kids in Minnesota and we’ve got 720 beds for them. For kids. That doesn’t make any sense. We have to change that, somehow.”
Getting to the root cause
Under Jacobson, Hope 4 Youth has emerged as a leader and crucial partner for the state in the campaign to end homelessness completely. The organization has worked extensively with the state office, Jacobson said, to think more strategically about not just the symptom of homelessness but what causes it.
“By the year 2020 we have big goals to not necessarily need our drop-in center. We want other things in place so that the moment someone walks out their door or gets kicked out, there’s a system in place to make sure they’re not homeless,” she said. “We’ve spent a lot of time identifying and talking to our homeless youth or those who were homeless. What was it that happened in your life … where we as a community, if we would have known or stepped in to do something, that your life might be different today?”
While striving for that level of change marks Hope 4 Youth as a very forward-thinking organization addressing youth homelessness in Minnesota, there’s also a balance of serving the needs of thousands of people who are currently homeless. Even with the daunting reality of having so many still in need, Jacobson said it has been inspiring to see people’s willingness to be part of a solution.
“It’s exciting to watch the community as the need is more well known. The community comes around it like nothing I’ve ever seen. … I’ve been involved with other nonprofits where people support it, but I’ve never seen it to the level I’ve seen this supported,” she added.
Jacobson recently had the opportunity to bring the lessons she’s gained from Hope 4 Youth back to her alma mater: She took a justice and peace studies course based around social problems.
“Youth homelessness is definitely a social problem,” said Jacobson, who worked in the legal field for a decade after graduating and then moved into nonprofits. “All these years later we’re still Tommies to the core. We still have the heart for it and we’re being Tommies in different ways.”
For Sitarz and Jacobson, the impact of their work can be felt in the stories of those who have encountered Hope 4 Youth’s helping hand. All too often, it’s a dangerous difference between having and not having that support from their community, as one young man’s testimonial to Hope 4 Youth illustrates so clearly.
“Hope probably saved my life,” he said.