COLUMBIA-Homeless teens typically don’t live on park benches or beg for money downtown. Instead, the teens go unnoticed, often living in abandoned buildings or sleeping at friends’ houses. They roam without families, addresses or phone numbers, and they often turn to drugs or prostitution to survive, said Lana Jacobs, a member of the St. Francis Community, which offers housing and food to homeless men and women.
The Boone County Homeless Task Force, which was formed in March, is proposing one solution to this problem — transitional housing for 17- to 21-year-olds who are suspected victims of abuse and neglect and are no longer in state care, said Heather Windham, founder of the task force and shelter clinical coordinator for the Rainbow House, an emergency shelter for children in Columbia.
This year, the Rainbow House was involved in a study with 17 homeless teens and young adults between March and April.
“What’s happening is teens are getting kicked out of their homes, or running away without a place to go,” Windham said. “Sometimes they have aged out of foster care, and they don’t have the skills to live on their own.”
Windham said that currently the Rainbow House offers emergency shelter for up to 12 days but hopes to be able to house homeless teens for up to a year and a half with a new transitional housing facility.
The Rainbow House applied for the grants to fund the project earlier this year and also will be the primary location for life skills classes.
“We want to be able to teach them how to cook, balance a checkbook, about sexual education and about violence,” Windham said.
The task force meets the third Tuesday of each month to discuss the future location of the facility, the status of the grants and the teenager’s needs.
“The meetings are open to the public,” Windham said. “We’ve had former homeless youth and other social service providers come to past meetings to discuss the issues.”
Lorenzo Lawson, the director of the Youth Empowerment Zone, which helps at-risk youth, attended one of the task force meetings and said he loved the concept of transitional housing and agreed that it is needed.
“In my opinion, they (the task force) are making a step in the right direction,” he said. “These kids need places where they are able to stabilize.”
However, Lawson said that because the task force is the first of its kind, it is going have to work out some kinks.
“I think it will need to have a strong outreach component for these kids to feel comfortable,” Lawson said. “They are skeptical of the system because they are underage. They don’t want to have to worry about being reported or locked up.”
Jacobs agreed about the importance of the task force communicating directly with teens.
“People need to face the situation on the streets,” she said. “They need to be listening to and talking to the kids. That’s the only way they are going to solve anything.”
Jacobs said she has profound doubts that teens will use the transitional housing facility for fear of being arrested.
“Agencies want names,” she said. “What makes you think these kids will show up? You’ve got to get them to trust you first.”
But Jaime Strange, who has worked with homeless teens as a parole office at the Department of Probation and Parole, said the task force is a great asset to the community.
“The concept is innovative and will open doors,” she said.
The next Boone County Homeless Youth Task Force meeting will be at 5 p.m. Aug. 21, at the Rainbow House Shelter, 1611 Towne Drive.