By New Haven Register
Photo credit: Scott Takushi, AP

“Often, homeless youth may couch hop, and because of the coronavirus, families don’t want them in the house,” Joan Schimml, a spokeswoman for the Greater Twin Cities YMCA, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Stay-at-home orders are especially difficult to follow for those who have no stable housing, and many youth and young families on edge even during robust economic times are now firmly in crisis.

In a typical year, the YMCA offers long-term “life coaching,” or case management services, for some 1,500 young people, as well as individualized services and referrals to other social service agencies for 200 families. It also helps with basic, immediate needs for some 4,000 additional young people, many of them ages 18 to 24.

All told, that’s 6,000 youth and families in precarious situations, and the needs have suddenly increased. A YMCA youth line, staffed seven days a week, has seen calls for help explode.

“We usually have 120 calls a month on that resource line, and we’re seeing some days double or triple right now,” said Lisa Pung Michaelson, executive director of youth intervention services for the Y.

BUSIER THAN EVER

What’s more, with school out, one of the places young people might receive services, or even just meals, is gone. So are the extra sets of eyes — teachers and other mandated reporters — that might notice if a child carries tell-tale bruises and other signs they’ve been physically abused.

As a result, the YMCA has turned many of its locations into emergency resource centers, offering everything from bagged meal pick-ups to childcare, with the goal of relieving stress for families in need.

Pung Michaelson spends her days busier than ever. At the resource centers, Y staffers are packing boxes full of food and basic supplies to help young people wherever they are.

They’ve found hotel rooms at four establishments for at least a dozen people in their teens or early 20s, but they’re being careful to screen sites to ensure those youth aren’t preyed on by drug dealers and sex traffickers.

NO SHELTER AVAILABILITY

A stay-at-home order “might mean something very different for our families who don’t have a home,” Pung Michaelson said. “There are a lot of perpetrators out there offering what appears to be a home or a safe haven in exchange for many things. Sexual exploitation is on the rise.”

The Y has trained staff members to be neutral mediators under a state-recognized Alternative Dispute Resolution process known as Rule 114, and they’re available to talk to families about why it’s important to allow teen friends-of-the-family who are staying with them to continue doing that.

They also have access to some modest financial incentives to help subsidize groceries, household products or a small “rent” for families or landlords.

“There’s no shelter availability right now, and it’s also not safe for them to be in shelters,” Pung Michaelson said. “We’re seeing a lot of ‘couch hopping’ youth get kicked off the couch right now. Many are being asked to leave.

Y staff members such as Patia Thao try to act as third parties to find out how they can make such arrangements continue.

Thao recently intervened on behalf of a 17-year-old boy and his grandmother, who had lost their housing and were staying with an acquaintance. When a two week stay turned into two months, the acquaintance asked them to move out by April 1. Thao stopped by with groceries and has been able to broker them a little more time.

FOUR TYPES OF DONATIONS

All of these responses require money or other resources, and the Y has turned to the community to ask for four different types of donations, listed online at ymcamn.org/youth-needs.

Basic wish list items such as canned food, diapers, bathroom products and home goods can be donated through the YMCA’s Amazon and Target registries. Links are on the website.

The Y is collecting electronic gift cards of $10 to $25 from VISA, Target, Walmart, Shell Gas Stations and Kwik Trip.

Individual monetary donations can be made online at ymcamn.org/give.

The Y is also collecting gently used bedroom furniture, new mattresses, new bedding and new pillows. Some larger furniture items are being accepted on an individual basis.

“Many of our partners are closed who would typically provide furnishings,” said Pung Michaelson, noting even small touches can convince a family to let a teen stick around. “If we can say, ‘we’re able to provide the bedding,’ that makes a difference.”

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