Sol House provides transitions for homeless Columbia youths

Friday, June 5, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:23 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 5, 2009
Zach Smith and Danielle Dement, center, share a quick hug while hanging out with Sol House residents Carl Lewis, left, Heather Brown and Sol House's evening supervisor, John Paul Perez, right, before the weekly house meeting and life skills class at the Sol House in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — The temperature dropped to 16 degrees the first night Tyler Caldwell slept outside at a Springfield truck stop. The second night was a bit warmer — 24 degrees. By the third day, the 18-year-old knew he needed help. A phone book and pay phone led him to a social worker that led him to Boys & Girls Town of Missouri, which finally led him to Sol House.

And Sol House eventually led him back home to his family in Michigan.

How to help a homeless youth

National Resources


Columbia Resources

If you know a struggling Columbia teen who is couch surfing or who says it is not safe to go home, here are some options.


If a person under 18 says that he or she has been kicked out of the caregiver's home, ran away because of abuse or is currently a ward of the court, you can call the state Child Abuse Hotline at 800-392-3738 to discuss services within the Children's Division.


If a person under 18 says he or she ran away but denies a history of abuse, you can call the Columbia Police Department at 874-7652 because the caregivers may have placed a missing persons report. Then law enforcement take the youth into custody and contact the juvenile office and caregiver.


Encourage youths ages 16 to 21 to call Sol House at 449-0182 to consult about possible services or housing.


Emergency Shelter

Salvation Army Harbor House, 602 N. Ann St.

Provides shelter and serves free lunch daily.



Dinner and Resources

Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen and Interfaith Day Center, 616 Park Ave.

Serves free dinner daily. Provides showers, phone for job-related calls, referrals for work and medical assistance, clothing and help obtaining IDs.



Job Training

Job Point, 2116 Nelwood Drive

Provides skills training in office technology, custodial/building maintenance and construction, supported employment, career planning and education and literacy.



Youth Empowerment Zone, 1204 Rogers St.

Provides job-search training to youths and advising on life skills.

573-256 - 1896

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Sol House is Columbia’s only live-in shelter exclusively for teens and young adults, ages 16 to 21, and is based on a growing concept in psychology and social services: Some young people aren't ready to live successfully on their own.

But Sol House seeks to do more than put a roof overhead. As a transitional living program, it works to help residents gain an education, jobs and independence.

Twenty-seven youths have cycled through Sol House’s eight beds since it opened in November 2007. Many come from families where, for reasons ranging from drugs to anger to abuse, instability was the norm.

They come toting a haphazard array of possessions and a challenging slew of problems. Zach Smith has been diagnosed with depression and attention-deficit disorder. Micah Schafer struggles to stay away from marijuana. Temperance Hayes has been a chronic runaway since she was 12.

Sometimes Sol House works, and residents leave with the tools needed to start building a life. After two months at Sol House, Tyler reunited with his family. He has moved into his own apartment as he waits to begin training with the National Guard.

Sometimes it fails, and the bricks and mortar patched together at Sol House crumble under the pressure of all that came before. Micah now sits in prison in Fulton for marijuana possession.

But as long as these young people have a home where they aren’t welcome or aren’t safe, and as long as they follow the rules, Sol House gives them a chance.

Tyler's Story

After failing the entrance exam to a military school in Pittsburgh, Penn., last December, Tyler just couldn’t face going home. He caught a bus to Missouri, where he planned to stay with an old friend. When the plan fell apart, he found himself sleeping outside a Springfield truck stop.

“I was a good kid, and I come from a good family,” Tyler said. “If I really wanted to go home, my mom would help me. But I didn't want to go home and have my Dad say ‘you're not good enough.’”

Once Tyler found Sol House, he used his time there to shake off the tensions of home — a strained relationship with his father, an alcoholic brother — and make plans for his future. Unable to find a job, he volunteered at the Oakland Plaza Senior Center. In April, Tyler signed on to the National Guard; he plans to complete basic training this summer and afterward return to high school. He also began to reconcile with his father.

“From what I hear, he's changed a lot since I've been here,” Tyler said.

Tyler quickly became a leader among residents of Sol House. He talked a newcomer into sticking with the program when she wanted to leave, made his roommate’s bed in the morning to help him keep up with the house rules and brought an easy laugh to most situations.

“I see what anger has done to my Dad and my brother,” he said, “and I don't want to end up like that, so I turn everything into a laughing matter. I listen to music, let the steam blow off, turn it into something good.”

By late April, Tyler was ready to try it out in the world again. He embraced Zach and John Paul Perez, Sol House's resident assistant, packed his bags into a friend's trunk and headed north to Michigan.

Homeless teens go uncounted

There is no accurate count of homeless youths in Columbia. The Columbia School District identified 33 homeless students in grades eight through 12 in the 2006-07 school year, including those with and without their families.

That number is probably low because it relies on teachers to identify teens as homeless, or on the teens or families to identify themselves, said Donna Cash, homeless state coordinator for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

Some homeless youth who are 18 or older end up in traditional Columbia shelterssuch as the Salvation Army Harbor House. Many never enter a shelter, perhaps sleeping outside or, most commonly, “couch surfing” at the homes of friends or relatives.

“Teenagers are hard to nail down because they don’t want that stigma that goes with being homeless,” said Cash. “They don’t want to be found, so they’re good at hiding.”

Cash said that since December she has had an increase in calls from schools statewide reporting homeless students.

But Dahne Yeager, director of the Interfaith Day Center, said the number of homeless teens he sees in Columbia seems to have decreased over the past two years, possibly because of Sol House. "It gives them a purpose; it gives them a positive thing,” he said.

Two years ago, Sol House director Heather Windham was working as shelter clinical coordinator at Rainbow House, a Columbia children's emergency shelter, child advocacy program and clinic. She heard stories about teens under 18 who were too young for traditional shelters, or teens who needed longer-term housing than Rainbow House could provide. “There was a real gap in services,” she said.

In March and April 2007, Rainbow House teamed with other Columbia social service agencies to form the Boone County Homeless Task Force, which tracked 17 homeless youths aged 16 to 21. That gave Windham the documentation she needed to secure funding to start Sol House, which is a branch of Rainbow House.

Windham, 36, came to social work unexpectedly, through journalism. In the late 90s, while working for E! Entertainment Television in Los Angeles, she read a newspaper article on Navajo teenagers in New Mexico who join gangs. Her curiosity grew, and Windham later moved to New Mexico to film a documentary about the lives of Navajo teens living on a reservation. The resulting film, "Growing up Navajo," aired on PBS in Albuquerque and was shown at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 1998.

“All the elders were talking about the teenagers, but nobody was listening to them,” she said of the experience. Inspired by the teens and the problems they faced, she went back to school and earned a master’s degree in social work from UCLA. When Windham moved with her husband and stepson to Missouri to live closer to extended family, she brought her passion for working with teenagers to Rainbow House and now to Sol House.

Sol House is made of three nondescript townhouses that sit side-by-side near downtown Columbia. The address is kept confidential to prevent people from showing up to demand emergency housing and to protect residents from old acquaintances they want to distance themselves from.

The young people who qualify for a room at Sol House can’t be pregnant or living with children. Applicants are evaluated to determine if they have ambitions Sol House can help them meet, and the motivation to stick with the program.

Once accepted, residents create a “transitional living program” of individual goals: basic things like attending school, finding a job, saving enough money for an apartment or staying off drugs or alcohol. Each resident has to spend 40 hours a week on productive activities both inside and outside Sol House to earn a weekend pass for nights out.

People who break the house rules — no drugs or alcohol, no unauthorized visitors, no violence— are asked to leave if they don't take steps to change. The only set of house keys is kept in the office so that the staff can keep track of the residents’ comings and goings.

“You’d be shocked at how much life-skills discussion there is, and how many conversations can be had about locking a door,” said resident assistant Rachael Whearty.

Windham said residents can stay for a total of 21 months, though most move up – or out — long before that. Although one resident has been there more than a year, the average stay is three months.

“We hope that we're planting some seeds that they can become contributing members of our community, and not depend on welfare or transfer into the penal system,” Windham said.

Zach's Story

Zach Smith doesn’t lack family. His mother and father both live in Columbia. His parents separated when he was 6, and he was put in his father’s custody. Behavioral problems kept him bouncing from school to school until his father decided to teach him at home. When Zach turned 16, he said he wanted to attend Hickman High School and live with his mother, who he says is less strict than his father. Although Zach and his father still communicate, however  infrequently, he adores his mother.

But the two soon found that, no matter how much they loved each other, they couldn’t live together. “We’d had yelling matches, and she was like, 'You could move out,'” Zach said.

So at 18, he found himself living on a relative's sofa.

Zach’s mother, Suzette Miller, tells a more complex story. When Zach moved back in with her after 10 years with his father he wanted to have his way and act like a father to his two younger brothers, ages 4 and 12, she said. Mother and son had different ideas of his role in the house. The pressure of suddenly living with two young children and of being back in the school system left Zach unable to control his temper — and left Miller in fear.

"This one particular day I had to call the police because I couldn't get him to calm down,” she said. “That's how out-of-control he was; I just couldn't continue with that."

Rather than throw Zach out, Miller said, she arranged for him to stay with a cousin. With a referral from Burrell Behavioral Health, a psychiatric service provider funded by the Missouri Department of Mental Health, Zach moved into Sol House two months later.

He’s been there for more than a year, making him Sol House’s longest tenured resident, Windham said.

At 19, Zach still has a cherubic face. He is slowly putting his life in order. He landed a part-time job at Wendy’s after 10 months of searching for work, graduated from high school and began attending classes at Moberly Area Community College. One day he’d like to design video games for a living. Miller longs to see him graduate from college.

Zach smiles whenever he talks about his mother, which is often. She cries when she remembers his high school graduation and thinks about the progress he's making at Sol House. Zach sometimes mentions moving back in with Miller, but she says that the space Sol House gives them is what they need.

“I think that separation was best for our relationship,” she said. “It opened up eyes and hearts and minds to what was going on."

The cost of homelessness

Many social safety-net programs don’t kick in until a situation is dire. For example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds many homeless assistance programs, doesn’t count someone who is couch-surfing as homeless, said Phil Steinhaus, chief executive officer of the Columbia Housing Authority.

“I think that's because there's such a lack of resources, so they don't consider those people homeless,” Steinhaus said. “But they are.”

Sol House is different because it is funded not through HUD, but through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with a grant that supports transitional living programs. The goal at Sol House is to teach people skills that can prevent them from reaching rock bottom and demands that participants create and follow a plan to self-sufficiency.

“Most of our social programs are reactionary and not preventive,” said Windham, Sol House’s director. “But it is swinging toward becoming preventive."

The social and financial costs of homelessness are high. A study of homeless youth in the Midwest 10 years ago found that between one-fifth and one-third of them report being robbed, physically or sexually assaulted, and a 2005 study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice found that homeless women are far more likely to experience violence of all kinds than women with stable homes. A 2005 article in the American Journal of Public Health reported that homeless people are arrested at higher rates than the rest of the population.Conversely, people who have been imprisoned are more likely to become homeless than people who haven't.

Windham said homeless youths have a lower rate of graduation from high school, which lessens their chances of finding stable employment and makes them more likely to end up on public assistance. Drug and alcohol use are major contributors to teen homelessness and have played a part in the lives of many Sol House residents, she said. Meanwhile, high rates of drug and alcohol abuse among the homeless often translate into high prison or treatment expenses for the state.

According to the Missouri Association of Drug Court Professionals, in 2008 it cost Missouri $14,538 to incarcerate one person for one year, making the relationship between homelessness and incarceration an expensive cycle.

Sol House has eight residential beds, four full-time and four part-time staff members and costs a little more than $200,000 a year to run, Windham said. About 70 percent of the funding comes through a five-year federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services and the rest comes from donations, which Windham says are down this year.

Sol House stretches its budget by having residents buy much of their own food, often using food stamps, or eat at soup kitchenssuch as the Salvation Army Harbor House.

"We try to encourage them to get a job and make their own money," Windham said. "Though we hook them up with government assistance, our hope is that they don't become dependent on them long term.”

John Paul Perez, the Sol House evening resident assistant, views the program as a win for taxpayers and the residents. Without Sol House, he said, “about 60 percent of them would live off the government for as long as they possibly could, transition into some assisted-living program and never get a chance for their independence.”

Micah's Story

Micah Schafer walks down the road to the gas station with the other guys after a community meeting in the Sol House office. It is cold outside, but inside the office it is warm, dim and sleepy. Temperance Hayes, a fellow resident, is sitting on the sofa in the living room saying she doesn’t have enough money to buy cigarettes, but she should have given the guys some change to pick her up a snack. Because she looks so young and has the nervous energy of a child, it’s hard to imagine her smoking, fighting or living the life she remembers.

When the guys breeze back in the door, they smell of smoke and have sodas and snacks in their hands. The rest walk past Temperance into the kitchen, but Micah stops and drops a bag of chips into her lap.

Micah first came to Sol House in September of 2008 after four months in jail for violating probation. The year before he arrived at Sol House he was found guilty of possession of marijuana, property damage and leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident. After three months at Sol House, Micah had enough saved from his job as a dishwasher to move out and get his own apartment, but his trial of independence lasted just a few weeks. In January 2009 he was back at Sol House after being arrested on charges of growing marijuana.

“I had my own apartment, I had my own girlfriend,” he said. “I lost a lot when I messed up this time.”

It’s just the latest in a long history of using and selling drugs — a history that Micah is finding hard to leave behind.

Micah was raised a Jehovah's Witness and home-schooled from a young age. When he entered Columbia’s public school system in junior high, the transition was rough. He said that as a shy teen whose religion discouraged him from playing sports and making friends, finding a social groove seemed impossible until he found pot.“I started selling marijuana in junior high, and I liked it. I fit in, I made a lot of money,” he said, putting the figure at over $12,000 a year at its peak. “Both my parents kind of turned their heads to it and said ‘He’s making his own decision,’ and rightly so. I mean, I was making more money than my mother.”

The occasional fine for marijuana possession was little more than an annoyance. “I just went crazy using it, using it in public,” Micah said. “You could see this kid, 14, 15 years old, smoking marijuana, and I thought, 'What are they going to do, give me a $200 ticket,'... I just paid the fine and kept on going.”

Micah said he never sold or used anything harder than marijuana. But he also let the lifestyle override everything else. He lost friends and, when he turned 18, his parents told him he had to move out. “They said, ‘We’ve done the best we can for you, but you gotta do what you want.’” he said.

Like the other youths in the house, Micah still speaks with his parents; he doesn’t blame them for his problems. “I can’t tell you how many times I see someone who gets a misdemeanor drug conviction and the parents completely disown them,” he said. “I was lucky I had parents who cared about me.”

Although he didn't succeed after his first stay at Sol House, Micah said it jump-started an attempt to change. “It was like I had brothers, I had sisters, that all cared about me,” he said. “It was another family that could do stuff for me my family couldn’t.”

In March, a few weeks after his return to Sol House, Micah was waiting for a court date on the latest marijuana charge. Even though he was already on probation, he hoped the steps he’d taken since returning to Sol House, such as attending therapy and volunteering at the senior center, would keep him out of prison.

They didn't.

Micah is now serving a four-month sentence at the Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center. He hopes to complete a rehab program while serving the sentence and get out in July. When released, he'll be 22, too old to come back to Sol House, and will face finding employment and a place to live with little money saved and a criminal record.

Learning to Live

Under Missouri state law, parents aren’t required to support their children once they turn 18. The foster care system terminates many services at the same age.

But that doesn’t mean all 18-year-olds are mentally, emotionally and financially ready to take care of themselves.

That’s especially true of young people who have experienced trauma — through violence, drugs, crime, joblessness, indifference, instability or sheer accident — or who lack strong role models in the adults around them.

Pheonix Programs Inc., a drug treatment program in Columbia, runs Apex, an outpatient treatment program for people 12 to 21. An internal survey in 2008 found that 15 percent of Apex clients began using drugs or alcohol before age 10, and 75 percent began between ages 10 and 14. Apex project director Heather Harlan said the teenage brain is particularly susceptible to long-term damage from these substances.

Not all the trauma to a brain that Harlan sees comes from alcohol and drug use. Much like the stress of war can damage the brain of a soldier, the stress of homelessness affects the mind, too: Just being homeless is a trauma that can affect a young person's personality, mental stability and success in school, she said.

People who save money, know how to compromise in an argument, brush their teeth every day, run a washing machine and follow up on job interviews do so because someone taught them it was important and how to do it. For someone like Zach, who needs to be reminded to lock the door when he goes out to work, these are monumental skills, and their absence can cripple a life.

The many roles Sol House fills are evident in the center-building office, which feels like a family home, a dorm room and a fifth-grade classroom rolled into one. The television, often tuned to security cameras that watch the doors to the separate boys' and girls’ buildings, is the only sign that there is another layer to life here.

Paper cut-outs shaped like people are glued to the office wall by the front door. Each bears a resident’s name and adjectives describing that person. Zach is honest, dependable and outgoing. Carl is awesome, loving, friendly and cool. Shelves in the hallways hold folders stuffed with job applications and forms. A dry-erase board in the kitchen is covered with lists of residents' goals. Upstairs are two offices for the staff; someone is on-site 24 hours a day.

Courtney Engel and Chris Radigan, both master's students in the MU School of Social Work, are completing a semester-long practicum at Sol House. They run Sol House’s Tuesday-night community meetings, where residents come together to give progress reports and make plans. At a March meeting Radigan reminds the residents to turn in their weekly work sheets — 35 hours to earn weekend outings or visits by friends.

“We figure if you’re not being productive during your week, you can’t have weekend privileges,” Radigan said. “If you’re productive with your time, it counts -- laundry, schoolwork, homework, meetings, cleaning, job applications.”

He is interrupted by Temperance, who is in her first week at Sol House: “I can’t do laundry; I don’t know how.”

Engel jumps in: “That’s OK, we’ll teach you.”

The residents themselves run portions of the Tuesday meetings. One recent week it’s Zach’s turn. He must teach a life-skills lesson as punishment for being late to earlier meetings. His topic is making the best use of your time. The conversation soon shifts to motivation.

"What motivates me a lot is family,” Micah said. “I consider Sol House a family. They give me so much encouragement, and that's the motivation I need.”

Despite that motivation, Micah's stay ended with his current imprisonment.

That type of gain and loss comes with the territory at Sol House. Windham says 70 percent of the teens who have come through the program move into stable homes, but many slide out of Sol House and back into their old lives. Windham survives because she finds satisfaction in small victories.

“Sometimes, I know my staff have been frustrated,” she said. “They don't see the kind of progress that they hoped when they started working here, so I have to remind them to revel in the baby steps.”

A baby step is someone who has skipped school for five days getting up and going to class, a first trip across town on the bus or three job applications filled out and returned.

While it’s too early to know what good the program will do for the long haul, staff members remain committed to their hope that arming young people with some basic life skills will give them a better chance for the future.

For example, Radigan did a previous practicum with homeless psychiatric patient addicts. He said working with young adults at Sol House “is almost like doing a time warp.”

“Everything that my past clients describe, my current clients also describe,” he said. “If they weren’t here now, they could be homeless for (the next) 30 years. We hope this short stint is all they have to see.”

Temperance's story

A rainy Saturday in April finds Temperance Hayes in Flat Branch Park at Festa Palooza, a celebration of Columbia kids that Windham helped organize. Temperance, 19, helps kids strap themselves into a harness, then throws them a beanbag as they run along a bouncy track trying to make a basket.

She laughs and smiles and no one watching could ever guess at the cruel, disjointed life that brought her here. Her story is the stuff of tragic cliché; physical abuse, sexual violence, family members in and out of jail, a well-earned reputation as a runaway.

“I started running away at the age of 12, running away from trouble,” she said, then paused. “I was raped at the age of 5.”

Temperance said when she was 18 she left her house in Columbia after she hit her half sister. After three weeks at the Harbor House shelter, she came to Sol House in February.

Temperance winds tighter and tighter as she talks about the past. Then, suddenly, she is blank. “When I was 14 or 15, I had my first boyfriend who was 18, and I started going out with him,” she said. “Guys scare me a little, but I still used to let them do what they want with me.”

Life at Sol House provided patches of stability but so far none that have stuck for good. Two weeks before that April afternoon in Flat Branch Park, Temperance got drunk and the police were called to Sol House. As punishment, she was asked to leave Sol House for the weekend. Angry, she took off without a change of clothes or a toothbrush, calling later to say she was on her way to Arkansas with a man she just met.

The next week, Temperance was back as suddenly as she had left, cooking dinner in the kitchen with the whole group, joking with Perez and resident Tyler Caldwell. There was a sense of relief about her return, but it didn't last. She met a guy at Columbia's Earth Day celebration in Peace Park the next weekend and moved in with him that same afternoon. No one at Sol House has seen her since she came to pick up her clothes.





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