The Northfield Union of Youth’s Safe Homes program is in need of more volunteers to help tackle youth homelessness in Northfield.
The number of program hosts has grown since it began two years ago. Volunteering for Safe Homes started informally with a couple of families with connections to The Key. That number has since expanded to 11, but Meredith Stolte of the Northfield Union of Youth said that is not enough. She noted on any given night, 35 Northfield youth are housing insecure, which could mean they are sleeping on a friend’s couch or drifting from place to place. She estimated five could be sleeping outside, sometimes in hazardous conditions.
“We would love to be able to do more,” said Stolte, youth advocate and community development coordinator. “So we are kind of limited by the number of host homes that we have and the number of kids who are in need of housing in Northfield, which is kind of shockingly high.”
The program serves the homeless ages 16 to 24. Organizers recruit community members willing to house youth who are experiencing homelessness, for stretches ranging from seven days to six to eight weeks. The host home goes through training and a background check.
“Northfield is a relatively affluent area with very involved and philanthropic community members,” Stolte said. “So I don’t think the issue is that people don’t want to help with this. I feel like people don’t know it is happening. It is a largely invisible problem.”
High School Senior Gage Tuma said the program helped him twice after he became homeless due to family arguments. Prior to his involvement with Safe Homes, Tuma, who now lives in Cannon Falls, had been homeless before, at one point spending one week in the Twin Cities. He said he developed a close bond with the family he was with, and they often would attend church together during the weeks he spent with him.
He said his current situation with a foster family is positive and credits the Safe Homes program with helping him transition to the new arrangement. He said there are a lot of youth who attend The Key who need similar housing services. To Tuma, the home a child grows up in plays an important role in the person they become.
“There’s really no harm in doing it,” he said of why people should volunteer for the program.
Stolte framed youth homelessness and housing insecurity as a public health issue that limits income and employment, relationships and social support. She added homeless youth she sees sometimes have a parent or guardian struggling with a problem that makes it unsafe for children, or LGBTQ youth who are kicked out of their house because their families or guardians do not support their sexuality.
To Stolte, being homeless can lead to mental and physical health issues, bringing an invisible, silent shame. Homelessness can lead to unsafe behaviors, like survival sex, to ensure those at risk have a place to stay.
She noted sometimes a young person who is placed with a host home finds success in bonding with the host family, while at other times that bond does not form. When homeless youth interact with the Northfield Union of Youth, they are guided on possible family reunifications, finding a job, setting up a savings plan and goal-setting.
Homeless youth in need of host home services often come to The Key, Union of Youth’s youth-run youth center in the downtown.
Stolte said in participating in the program, she and her colleagues share a similar motivation.
“For me, and I am speaking for my colleagues here as well because I think we share a philosophy on this, there is an unfortunate cultural narrative that people who are homeless, including young people who are homeless, somehow deserve it,” she said. “I think we tell ourselves that story to make it make sense.”
Anyone looking to become a host family can contact Stolte by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (406) 407-0989.