COLUMBIA — Homeless youths who appear on the doorstep of St. Francis House are sometimes dropped off by the same people who should be taking care of them.
“Social workers sometimes drop off discharged teens as young as 16 years, 9 months,” said Lana Jacobs of the homeless shelter and Catholic worker community. In some cases, Jacobs said, youth arrive at St. Francis House with no background information and a discharge summary that only states, ‘This person will go to live in St. Francis House and will become a productive member of society.’”
Jacobs has also seen parents dropping off their own child because they don’t know what else to do. Runaways and those fleeing foster care also seek out St. Francis House, she said.
Jim Chapman, director of the Salvation Army’s Harbor House, an emergency shelter and transitional housing program, said he believes there are about 50 homeless teens in Columbia. Homelessness overall has been gradually increasing over the years, Chapman said.
“There just isn’t any housing for these kids,” said Heather Windham, a licensed clinical social worker.
Windham is the director of Sol House, a transitional living program that opened Nov. 12 in Columbia. Sol House aims to provide a safe shelter for young adults 16 to 21 who are homeless, in danger of becoming homeless or living in an unsafe environment.
These young adults are often too young for public housing, where 18 is the minimum age of eligibility. For youths older than 18, public housing provides shelter but demands that residents be able to function independently.
Sol House accepts dependent youths whose age makes them eligible for public housing but who lack skills to live on their own. The program will provide more than a roof and a bed: youths will learn to clean, cook, apply for jobs and balance their checkbook, Windham said.
Sol House will accommodate homeless youths who are kicked out of their homes or afraid to go home because of an abusive environment. These teens usually find themselves sleeping at friends’ houses and other transitory locations. So far, there have been no requests or referrals for kids who are living on the streets, Windham said.
“Many of these kids are couch-surfing or sleeping in their cars,” Windham said. “We don’t see a lot of street kids.”
Homeless youths are usually referred to Sol House by schools, the Department of Probation and Parole, their friends’ parents, other social services agencies, concerned neighbors or even themselves.
The program will refer youths it cannot accept to public housing, the Department of Mental Health, adult shelters or other transitional living programs in the state.
Rainbow House, a children’s emergency shelter and regional child advocacy center, is linked to Sol House. On its own, Rainbow House provides services for a maximum of 14 children who are 18 or younger. These children are allowed to stay at Rainbow House for 12 to 30 days.
“The goal is to always have them in a positive family environment,” said Emily Burnham, marketing director at Rainbow House.
Sol House will provide supervised housing for eight youths for up to 18 months; operators won’t disclose the location, citing the safety and privacy of those living there.
Sol House will also provide programs directly or through referral that include GED preparation, vocational education, career counseling and job placement, mental health services, physical exams, dental exams, financial planning, and counseling.
And Windham said her own goal is to create a corporate mentoring program at Sol House in which professionals counsel teens on life skills and employment training.
She also wants to create a host family program that would provide families for the residents to visit during the day and on holidays.
Residents will pay a kind of rent during their stay at Sol House. This rent will be put into a managed savings plan, which will be returned in full to the young adults, Windham said.
Jacobs does not think there are enough services for homeless teens in Columbia. The services that are provided, she said, do not accommodate youths with drug or alcohol addictions, mental illnesses and attitude problems. She said there also aren’t any places for self-mutilators, which have increased dramatically in number during the last five years.
“There are never enough services,” Jacobs said. “There is not a person in my house who could stay at another house in Columbia. Most services are designed for people who can go and ask for services.”
Windham said that although Sol House requires motivated people to make the program beneficial, it is open to accepting those with mental problems.
Windham, however, does acknowledge Jacobs’ concerns for those who fall through the cracks of the system.
Along with Chapman, Jacobs has seen an increase in the number of homeless youths in Columbia over the past few years. She attributes this, in part, to dysfunction in the family.
She said she doesn’t believe that kids on the street who are in “survival mode” benefit from these kinds of programs.
“Human beings don’t respond to programs,” Jacobs said. “Kids have no reason to trust adults. They need trust before classes. They need companionship.”
Windham said she hopes to create a peer outreach program and life-skills classes where teens of Sol House who might distrust adults will be able to connect to other young people in the community to help build companionship.
Chapman said that a large hurdle for many homeless people is the belief of others who think they aren’t doing anything to help themselves.
“If you can’t afford to pay the rent, you’re homeless,” Chapman said. “Poor people do not want to be poor.”
Chapman’s Harbor House accepts people who are not serious criminal or sexual offenders, who pass warrant checks, who are not suicidal and who are able to take care of themselves. These individuals, however, have to be at least 18 years or older unless accompanied by a parent.
Chapman believes that Sol House will be beneficial to those under 18, but he still thinks it is “only the tip of the iceberg” because there needs to be more services for teens.
For Windham and Burnham, Sol House offer a place for the homeless teen to become a capable adult.
“We want to help them become individuals,” Windham said. “We don’t want them reliant on the welfare system.”
“The homeless youth is a problematic community,” Burnham said. “We want them to function on their own and become an asset to our community.”