HOPE 4 Youth opens doors to homeless youth

They had slept in tents in the minus-16 degree weather as four inches of snow fell around them, burying their improvised camp site.

In the food and hygiene pantry, HOPE 4 Youth drop-in center tour guide John Sitarz tells open house visitors what goes in to survival packs given out every night to Anoka County youth experiencing homelessness. Photos by Sue Austreng

In the food and hygiene pantry, HOPE 4 Youth drop-in center tour guide John Sitarz tells open house visitors what goes in to survival packs given out every night to Anoka County youth experiencing homelessness. Photos by Sue Austreng

The five kids stumbled in to the HOPE 4 Youth drop-in center Saturday afternoon, desperately looking for warmth and maybe something to eat.

A warm shower and clean, dry clothes warmed their bodies and a hearty meal nourished them. The open arms and compassionate hearts of volunteers at the drop-in center for homeless youth nourished their souls as well, said John Sitarz, a volunteer at HOPE 4 Youth.

“These kids were just frozen. And to know they’d been out there in the freezing cold, sleeping in tents … it just breaks your heart,” he said.

Sitarz and the other volunteers manning the HOPE 4 Youth drop-in center that night made dozens of phone calls until finally a Coon Rapids hotel agreed to take them for one week.

“We’d love to let them stay here, but we’re not an overnight shelter,” Sitarz said to people stopping by a Dec. 7-8 open house event at the drop-in center.

“We have to send them back out and it just breaks my heart,”

The drop-in center (located in the Old Milk Factory at 2665 4th Ave. N, Suite 40, Anoka) isn’t an overnight shelter. It’s only open from 2-7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 1-4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

While there, homeless youth up to age 24 can get a hot meal, do some job hunting, write a resume, do their homework, wash their clothes, nap on the couch, maybe play some Foosball or watch some television.

But when the drop-in center closes, they’re back out on the streets or living in their car or couch hopping.

HOPE 4 Youth founder Brian Swanson, executive director Deb Lande and Sitarz and the other volunteers want to change that.

They want to provide an emergency bed shelter at HOPE 4 Youth.

Those plans are now on hold. Anoka City Council Dec. 9 put a temporary moratorium on the establishment of any new shelters or boarding houses while it studies the issue, evaluating best locations and operational practices, with plans to update city code to specifically address shelters.

“Homelessness is happening here,” Lande said. “Seventy-percent of the kids (at HOPE 4 Youth) are from Anoka County. They’re not shipping in from Minneapolis. They’re from here and we want to get them off the streets.”

According to Karrie Schaaf, homeless youth and families liaison for Anoka-Hennepin School District, more than 400 homeless youth have been identified in the school district’s attendance area this school year alone.

In fact, more than 220 kids – some as young as nine years old – have been served at the HOPE 4 Youth drop-in center since it opened just nine months ago.

“The flow of need up here is pretty intense,” said Lande.

Volunteer Paul Ekstrom said there are many factors contributing to youth homelessness. Those include “the failures of the foster care system, family home foreclosure, job loss and abandonment by their parents,” he said.

But Sitarz and Ekstrom also talked about generous support the drop-in center has received from local residents, businesses and organizations.

Keller-Williams organized a golf tournament in October that netted over $19,000. More than $27,000 was raised during the Nov. 14 Give to the Max event. A HOPE 4 Youth gala planned by the Vennekretsen Lodge Anoka chapter of Sons of Norway staged Nov. 16 brought in more than $65,000. And

Those funds help pay daily expenses and also serve as start-up money for an emergency bed shelter.

Add to that, Lowe’s, Menard’s and Home Depot have indicated they will donate materials needed to remodel rooms in the drop-in center to serve as emergency bed shelter space.

“We’ve got the materials and the labor donated,” Ekstrom said. “Slumberland promised to donated 20 beds, a group of retired ladies said they would make 20 quilts for the beds. That’s what makes your heart smile. We just need the OK (from city council members) to do it.”

So now’s the time to get word out about the need for an emergency bed shelter, Lande said.

“It’s OK to learn about something you don’t understand. It’s not OK to say it doesn’t exist,” she said.

After State Rep. Jim Abeler and his wife Barbara (owners of the Old Milk Factory building in which HOPE 4 Youth resides) attended the gala last month, they and their family donated the food, prepared and served a traditional Thanksgiving dinner to youth and staff at HOPE 4 Youth.

Mickman Brothers is planning a Christmas party at the drop-in center and plans to give out 300 bus passes during the holiday event.

“We’ve got an incredible, overwhelming amount of support (from the community),” Swanson said. “What we need is a spot to shelter these kids. That one piece will make our program functional.”

The emergency bed shelter would provide shelter for one to 21 days.

The long-term vision, Lande said, is to provide transitional living programs for six to 18 months and then eventually to provide permanent affordable housing.

And youth wouldn’t just be living there. They’d be teamed up with mentors, looking for jobs, completing high school or college degrees, and working to become strong, independent community members reaching their full potential.

“We’re a big family here. That’s what we’re here for,” said Sitarz. “We’re raising money because 100 percent goes to the kids so we can help them.”

“I’m amazed at what these kids can do, but they shouldn’t have to do this. No one should have to do this.”

The HOPE 4 Youth hotline number is 763-746-7676, extension 1.

To learn more about HOPE 4 Youth, to make a donation or to see about volunteer opportunities, visit Hope4YouthMN.org.

HOPE 4 Youth 2013 Drive for 5

Donations are needed for survival packs, given out at the HOPE 4 Youth drop-in center to Anoka County youth experiencing homelessness. The following items are needed and will be collected 9-11 a.m. Dec. 14 at Andover, Anoka, Blaine, Coon Rapids, or Champlin Park high school:

1. 32-inch duffel bags (available for $15 at Walmart)

2. Sleeping gear (sleeping bag, pillow, camp mat)

3. Teen clothing and outerwear (pants, shirts, sweaters, shoes, boots, coats, hats, mittens/gloves)

4. Meals on the go (peanut butter, pasta sides, macaroni and cheese, beef stew, ramen noodles, ravioli, etc. with pop top openings)

5. Transportation assistance: bus passes (available at Cub Foods) and gas cards (available at Super America)

The HOPE 4 Youth hotline number is 763-746-7676, extention 1.

Sue Austreng is at sue.austreng@ecm-inc.com

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