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The Face of Hunger: For the young and homeless, hunger can be a top concern

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Catherine Brenner
Catherine Brenner, 19, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, spent time at YouthLink, a drop-in center for homeless young people in Minneapolis, Minn. on Friday, August 26, 2011. YouthLink is a place where young people can go for many kinds of help, including hot meals, basic health care, assistance finding long-term housing, and assistance looking for a job.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Catherine Brenner has been homeless for more than a year, but she hasn't forgotten how hungry she felt in those first weeks.

"Sometimes I went days without eating," said Brenner, 19.

At her most desperate, when she was pregnant, Brenner stole food. She also once looked for food in the trash, something she isn't proud of.

   

View more photos of young Minnesotans struggling with homelessness and hunger.

"I was so hungry, being pregnant, that I actually dumpster dived," she said. "I found something, and I thought, 'I'm not eating that.' And I walked away."

Brenner often stays at the Salvation Army's Harbor Light homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis. Her struggle to support herself is increasingly a common story in Minnesota, where homelessness among young people is on the rise.

The biggest increase is among 18- to 21-year-olds. On any given night in Minnesota, about 1,950 in that age group are homeless, according to Wilder Research, a nonprofit heath and human services organization in St. Paul.

Young people who are homeless — whether they stay in shelters, on the streets or occasionally with friends — struggle to find enough to eat. Food shelves and meal programs offer help, but some have to resort to their own survival skills to get by.

  LEARNING THE ROPES

These days, Brenner often eats at YouthLink, a Minneapolis drop-in center for homeless young people that provides meals for about 50 people a night. The organization has seen a 34 percent increase in young people over last year alone.

Until she is able to support herself and her eight-month-old daughter, Brennan's sister is caring for the child.

When Brenner first became homeless, she didn't know where to go for help.

"People aren't just going to help you," she said. "It is hard when you first become homeless or become on your own."

When young people become homeless, it's important to quickly provide them with help, said Cathy ten Broeke, who heads the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County. 

"What we know is that when a youth ends up on the street, unless they're connected to a safe, good place to be in the first 72 hours, they're likely to do something that compromises their basic value system in order to get shelter or in order to get food," ten Broeke said.

That means everything from stealing to dumpster diving to trading sex for food. Several young people interviewed by MPR News said they had done such things in order to get food.

But those are extreme cases. Many young people simply settle for less, and less healthy food. They use food shelves, meal programs, or food stamps, but still struggle to feed themselves.

Angel Downs, Katie Miller
Angel Downs, 20, of Minneapolis and transition coach Katie Miller, 36, of Minneapolis, relax in the backyard of Nicollet Square in Minneapolis, Minn. on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011. Nicollet Square is a new housing facility for young people transitioning out of homelessness or foster care.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Angel Downs, 20, spent most of last year couch hopping. At one point she landed in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Park, with 15 other teens. When she was short of money, she couldn't always get to places that would help.

"I was hungry sometimes, because ... I didn't have bus fare," she said. "So I just had to stay where I was and be hungry."

Downs had lived with her father, who struggled financially. For a time they were homeless together. After high school, she left to be on her own. She's worked in low-wage jobs since she was 15, and with her limited income, bought chips, soda, and lots of noodles.

"Not healthy food or nothing like that," she said. "Not a full meal, because if you [cook] something, you have to have a place to live first, right? No, we was eating whatever we could eat."

Downs now has an apartment of her own in Nicollet Square, a Minneapolis supportive housing program for young people moving out of homelessness or foster care. But she still needs help from food shelves.

A FOOD SHELF DESIGNED FOR YOUTH

Matt Tennant understands that need. A former outreach worker who once sent teens he found on the streets to other food shelves, he added Groveland Food For Youth to another food shelf in 2002, after realizing many traditional programs had inadvertently created obstacles for homeless young people.

"As outreach workers, were we making referrals to food shelves, not knowing that when our youth showed up there, they were being asked for ID and proof of address," he said.

Groveland Food For Youth serves homeless young people and those moving into stable housing. Because Tennant knows many of them won't have a refrigerator to store the food, he offers food they can use.

"We specifically look for things that are kind of small," he said. "Individual servings, nonperishable goods, beef jerky, trail mix, cereal — stuff that kids can throw in a backpack and take with them."

Matt Tennant
Matt Tennant, 40, of Minneapolis, is the director and founder of Full Cycle, a non-profit bicycle shop that works with homeless young people ages 23 and under. The shop hires homeless young people for six-month, paid internships and teaches them about biking, bike repair, customer service, and basic business skills such as how to write a resume and how to interview.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Tennant hires homeless teens to work in his food shelf to help them earn money. They also relate well to young clients.

"A lot of times they know each other from the streets," he said. "So it feels more like friends hooking each other up, than it does going and receiving a service from a food shelf."

When young people walk in the door, Jendeen Forberg, who runs the food shelf, welcomes them like it's a party. Forberg makes it clear that no ID is necessary — and that there are no rules about which food items they can take.

"Feel free to grab anything that isn't nailed down or glued to the shelf," she tells them.

Teens come for everything from macaroni and applesauce to diapers. The food shelf also has fresh produce, frozen meat and milk.

On a recent visit, Daniesha McComb stuffed a big bag full of macaroni and potatoes. She didn't know about the food shelf when she was homeless a few months ago — she wishes she had. 

 "I could have used it," she said. "Like crazy, actually."

McComb, 18, couch hopped for about a year. She found that the people she stayed with wanted food in exchange for a place to sleep, but she didn't have any to give them.

If she had known about the food shelf earlier, it would have made it a lot easier to find places to stay.

"They're like, 'The least you could do is bring some food up in here. It's not that hard to come across some bread or some milk or something like that,'" she recalled. "I'm like, 'Well, it kind of is, when you don't have money, and you're homeless.'

"You feel like you have to go out and get food, otherwise you're going to get kicked out," she said.

Young people are creative in how they use the food they receive from food shelves. Sometimes they cook at a friend's house, or over a campfire. Others use the microwave at a convenience store. In a pinch, they'll eat a can of food cold.

  TEACHING NUTRITION AND BUDGET SKILLS

As demand grows, others are following Groveland's lead. Two food shelves in the west and northwest Twin Cities suburbs now serve homeless young people as well.

When young people find stable housing, the problem of hunger doesn't disappear.  They still have to figure out how to live on tight budgets.

As Tennant sees it, food shelves are only part of the solution. He sees many young people who also need to learn how to eat and shop.

"I think that's invaluable, to teach a kid how to grocery shop, and some really basic nutrition," he said. "Most of these folks are growing up in a community where that's not priority. People aren't talking about how to eat healthy and how to shop smart, because they have other stuff going on."

McComb takes the food from the Groveland food shelf, and stocks her cupboard, in her small apartment at The Archdale, a supportive housing program in Minneapolis.

She still finds it hard to make ends meet, even with food stamps. She has a job at a temp service and is learning how to stretch her food budget at the grocery store.

When she looks around her kitchen, she thinks about how she and her friends are doing now. 

"I guess we eat a lot healthier than we used to, back when we were homeless, with the chips and the soda and all that," she said. "We still do that occasionally, because you know, anybody does that. But at the same time, you know, it's something better."

 In a time when the number of homeless young people is rising, McComb is one of the lucky ones.

Return to Ground Level: Hunger »