Imagine if one of the highlights of turning 18 was being old enough to stay at a homeless shelter.
Alexia Wood, executive director of St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter and the Micah Center in Green Bay, has witnessed it.
“Every year, we have seen 18-and 19-year-olds, sometimes on their 18th birthday, present for shelter,” said Wood. “Certainly they didn’t wake up that morning surprised to be homeless. It’s just the first day that they are eligible to engage in services.”
Northeast Wisconsin has a growing homeless youth epidemic. Brown County leads the state with more than 1,300 homeless children and youth reported within its boundaries during the academic year. The number is likely higher, said Katie Gazella, a youth advocate for Family Services’ Open Door Youth Services. “Those are just the ones who have been identified.”
Gazella, Wood, Andrea Pasqualucci, a social worker for the Ashwaubenon School District, and Brittany Maas, an Americorps worker for Family Services, addressed homeless youth as part of a panel discussion on Nov. 14 at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality at St. Norbert Abbey, De Pere.
The absence of family emergency shelters in the community and a shortage of affordable housing overall contribute to this problem. According to Wood, Brown County is short 8,000 affordable housing units.
Pasqualucci, who serves as the liaison for the homeless in the Ashwaubenon School District, has known students who have slept on couches, basement floors, in cars and in hotel rooms with eight other people.
“The backpack isn’t sitting by the door ready to go,” she said about these students. “They come to school unprepared.”
The students are tired. Some may not have showered or brushed their teeth. The schools provide free breakfast and lunch, but some of the older children do not come forward to say they need the meals.
“They go through the day and listen to their peers who are not going through this situation and it alienates them a little more,” said Pasqualucci, a member of Nativity of Our Lord Parish, Ashwaubenon. “After school, they don’t participate in activities. The arranged transportation goes when it goes. Their options are very limited.”
The math doesn’t add up for families either. They are able to find hotel rooms for $45 to $55, however, multiply that cost by 30 days and an apartment would be a better financial decision. But it’s most often not an option. Due to the shortage, when an affordable housing unit does become available, the landlord receives hundreds of applications, so the landlord can set the criteria.
“They can say that they won’t take anyone with a prior eviction, anybody with poor credit or you need to make three times the monthly rent before they will look at you,” said Wood. “You have somebody living on a fixed income. They will never be considered. They are living in the instant. A hotel room at $45 or $58 a night is not financially sound, but it’s the immediate answer.”
Youth who become homeless after leaving difficult family situations often have even fewer options. Wisconsin does not have emancipation of minors, so unaccompanied youth cannot petition to become their own guardian to obtain resources. Some end up in a local juvenile facility, not because they have done anything wrong, but because there is no other housing for them.
“We talk a lot about hierarchy of needs,” said Maas. “When a youth is kicked out of their home, the number one priority is, ‘Where am I staying tonight?’ It’s not going to school, not learning about math.”
Progress has been made in taking care of the homeless adults in this area. Let’s do the same for homeless youth. Give to Open Door Youth Services and other programs that can help combat youth homelessness. Advocate for federal funding for these programs. Help get northeast Wisconsin off the top of this leaderboard.