Tyler Roland has heard stories of teenagers sleeping under the Pleasant Street bridge in Anoka.
Within eyesight of this bridge is the headquarters of a new organization that wants to help those younger than 24 years old who have few or no places to turn to for help.
Hope 4 Youth (www.hope4youthmn.org) will not be a homeless shelter, but it will strive to offer clothing, food, hygiene products, sleeping bags, blankets, a place to take a shower and do laundry, advice and direction to resources when it opens March 4 at an office space within the Old Milk Bottle Factory in Anoka at 2665 4th Ave. N.
There will be an open house this Sunday, March 3 from 1 to 5 p.m.
Someday, it hopes to have a network of host families to shelter the kids who have to resort to sleeping under a bridge, in the forest or in their vehicle, but that will be further down the road.
While there has always been compassion and concern for the homeless youth in Anoka County, there really has not been a central resource dedicated to helping them, said Karrie Schaaf, the homeless youth and families liaison for the Anoka-Hennepin School District.
Stepping Stone Emergency Housing in Anoka is for adults. Family Promise of Anoka County has 14 churches that volunteer to shelter the homeless on a rotating schedule, but it focuses on families.
Every Anoka-Hennepin high school along with Coon Rapids, Jackson and Northdale middle schools have a food shelf, according to Schaaf. Homeless liaisons in the school do their best to help students think of relatives or friends they could stay with, but there is only so much they can do.
Ham Lake businessman and Hope 4 Youth founder Brian Swanson was distressed after reading a newspaper article about homeless youth, so he shared the article with friends and organized a meeting to brainstorm ways to help.
They were going to meet at a local coffee house, but the number of people planning to attend grew so large that they met at the Emma B. Howe YMCA in Coon Rapids.
Today, there are about 50 people who have signed up to volunteer, but many more are needed, Swanson said.
“It was compassion, concern and action that got this group going,” Schaaf said.
Getting a true number of homeless youth in Anoka County can be difficult. A count in January 2012 by Anoka County Continuum of Care identified 185 homeless youth between the ages of 16 and 21.
As of Feb. 20, there are 535 homeless youth attending Anoka-Hennepin schools, according to Schaaf.
Some youth end up homeless because of problems with their parents, but not everyone is from what people may classify as a problem home, Swanson said.
He knows of two kids whose mother died not long after they immigrated to the United States, according to Swanson.
A majority are couch hopping and Schaaf knew of eight all of last year who slept outside or in their vehicles, she said.
In January of this year, she was aware of nine people in these situations, according to Schaaf.
Jerry Streich today is the Centennial Fire District Chief. Not many people know he was once homeless because he never knew it himself until reading the article about homeless youth.
Streich said he was homeless from ninth- to 11th-grades. After his parents got divorced, his mother took custody of the four children and they continued living at their house. She eventually lost it and they were forced to live in a hotel. After he got his license, he went off on his own and slept in his vehicle.
Streich is used to applying for grants for the Centennial Fire District, so he will spend his spare time applying for grants for Hope 4 Youth.
“It will take the community to keep it going because this costs money and we need volunteers,” Streich said.
Hope 4 Youth was able to get office space at the Old Milk Bottle Factory thanks to building owners Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and his wife Barbara.
They have some old appliances, but could use more tables and chairs in a dining room area. They want to have a row of computers along one wall so the kids have a place to do research for homework projects or to work on resumes or job applications. They want to be able to have supplies and duffle bags to put the supplies in. Some may need a new sleeping bag, an extra blanket or something to snack on.
The organization has applied for 501(c)(3) status and expects to gain this designation so that all donations are tax deductible. Swanson said people can still donate and receive the paperwork for tax purposes later.
Shannon Harris is leading the efforts for collecting donations. She was born and raised in the area and has a son at Anoka High School. Her friend Wendy Morgan is also a lifelong Anoka resident.
They were not very aware of homelessness growing up in Anoka because they did not see the stereotypical person pushing the shopping cart or holding a sign asking for spare change that you see closer to downtown. Harris did recently see a homeless person with a shopping cart by the Subway in downtown Anoka, but this is more the exception in Anoka County.
Morgan has two children of her own in their early 20s. It is sad for her to think about how some the same age as her children are in difficult situations so she wanted to help.
She plans to cook meals at her home and bring them to the drop-in center or clean toilets if that is what is needed, Morgan said.
Roland is a youth pastor at Hope Fellowship in Ramsey. He and a couple of other volunteers are in charge of coordinating outreach efforts with the kids. Most of the homeless youth in Anoka County are in school, so they will work closely to let the homeless liaisons in the schools know who they are and how Hope 4 Youth can help.
This initiative is community-driven and has no ties to the government, Swanson said.
“If we as individuals don’t step up and do what needs to be done to solve some of these problems in the community, then the unfortunate result is the government feels compelled to step in, and unfortunately that doesn’t always work out as well as if we individuals do it,” he said.
About the drop-in center
The drop-in center at the Old Milk Bottle Factory, Anoka, at 2665 4th Ave. N. is expected to be open Monday, March 4.
The center will be open from 2 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. While there, youth will be able to get a hot meal, learn various skills to help them look for jobs, improve their relationships or improve themselves in general.
For more information and to find out how to volunteer or donate, visit www.hope4youthmn.org. The phone number is 763-323-2066.
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]