By the end of the summer, a new home will rescue homeless young people from city streets.
Avenues for Homeless Youth is recruiting families willing to open their homes to young people without a place to live.
Modeled on a program created a decade ago that offers gay or transgender teens living on the street a place to call home, the program aims to fill the gap for a growing number of 16- to 21-year-olds who cannot find shelter. After launching a program in the suburban Twin Cities in September, the non-profit group trained 15 hosts and began placing young people in their homes.
"The response was so much faster than we imagined," Executive Director Deb Loon said. "And yes, I wonder if it has something to do with a combination of economic and political factors that are causing folks to say, I need to do something, I really want to help."
The number of homeless young people age 18 to 21 has grown dramatically in Minnesota. The number of homeless teens doubled to nearly 2,000 from 2006 to 2009.
Many young people are homeless because their families cannot afford to support them, according to a report on homelessness from the Wilder Foundation.
Qumar Saadiq Saoud and Mike Haldeman, two volunteers for Avenues for Homeless Youth, know first-hand that such programs provide a route to safety for young people living on the streets.
More than a decade ago, Saoud landed on the streets at 19 after telling his family that he is gay.
His life changed after someone told him about a program where volunteers opened up their own homes to teens. Twin Cities organizers had created the region's first host home program in 1998 to give gay or transgender kids safe shelter.
"When I first came into the house he had all these records and stuff to show me," Saoud said. "It was just really cool. Very welcoming."
The big house Haldeman managed for his landlady had plenty of space for a homeless teen.
"I really wanted to make it a really safe space for Qumar and actually I wasn't interested in being a parent," said Haldeman, who is about 20 years older. "I felt like what I could give was experience and a room in a progressive household."
Their living arrangement happened only after many conversations and after Haldemen completed background checks and training.
Saoud and Haldeman remember talking for hours at a time about race and identity. Saoud began to open up and mature. He contributed as he could to pay for household expenses, but conceded that adjusting to a new home wasn't easy.
"We had our rough times," Saoud said. "I was a teenager, right?"
Haldeman agreed, but said he too had something to learn.
"There were times where I wasn't as good as I could be as a person and as a host," he said. "And yet I really felt that Qumar would be there to show me that all of this — just being the amazing and gifted person he was — that it was worth it."
Haldeman continued to give Saoud a home even after the young man turned 21. Saoud stayed on and rented his room for several years. Now the two men are 31 and 51, and they both volunteer for Avenues for Homeless Youth. Its host home program for gay young adults helps about 10 people at any given time.
Program Director Rocki Simoes said the small program allows young people to receive the help they need, even after they legally become adults. Many participants "aged out" of the foster care system, or don't want to be a part of it, she said.
"Sixty percent of the youth in the Twin Cities who are homeless come out of foster care," she said. "So clearly that system failed them."
Simoes said hosts learn a lot from their guests, in part because most hosts are white and most homeless youth are minorities. The hosts also benefit, particularly older gay folks who never had anyone to help them when they were young.
"I think they're able to understand someone else's reality in a more intimate way and I think they also are more aware of their own stuff," Simoes said.
"That's not how I recruit hosts, but that happens. Healing happens or begins to happen for both young people and hosts as they live together."