Brooklyn Park first Twin Cities suburb to open teen shelter

The new Brooklyn Avenues shelter in Brookyln Park, Minn.
Sasha Aslanian / MPR News

On severely cold winter nights, homeless teens and young adults often are left with few options.

If they can't couch hop at friends' houses, they may have to turn to strangers for help.

To address the need, the city of Brooklyn Park spent $950,000 to build a teen shelter, and brought in the Minneapolis nonprofit Avenues for Homeless Youth to run it. Community leaders will celebrate its opening today and hold an open house on Saturday.

That makes the city the first Twin Cities suburb to open a shelter designed for young people. The new 12-bed shelter, called Brooklyn Avenues, will serve young people ages 16 through 20 who have been kicked out of their homes or run away and have no safe place to go.

The shelter, which opens next week, went up in the northwest suburb without a fight. Supporters say people in the community recognized a need and came together.

"Every time we have these severe cold winter nights, I'm always concerned about those people who have nowhere to be out of the cold, and here I am in a nice, warm house," said Barb Dahlquist, a volunteer for the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church.

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Dahlquist, a retired teacher, felt drawn to help collect donations for shelter.

As workmen put the finishing touches on the building, the shelter is getting ready for the teenagers, stocking up on alarm clocks, fleece blankets and body wash.

"We've gotten 12 bars of soap, 12 lip balm, 36 toothbrushes, 24 tubes of toothpaste," said Linda Forkey, another volunteer from Prince of Peace.

Lt. Toni Weinbeck
Lt. Toni Weinbeck.
Sasha Aslanian / MPR News

The new shelter will fill a void in Brooklyn Park, where police officers encounter teens who have run away from group homes or adoptive parents and are easy prey for predators, said Lt. Toni Weinbeck, who commands the overnight shift.

"Within 24 to 48 hours, somebody had stopped, some adult had stopped, pulled them into an apartment and made them feel wanted, welcome," she said. "And they grab onto them and they victimize them."

One sex trafficking ring Weinbeck investigated in 2011 involved 11 victims. She turned to Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde for help.

"I was so passionate about it, I was pounding tables," Weinbeck said. "I was telling him we just don't have the resources for those victims, for those runaways. And he took that and ran with it."

The new shelter has tidy bedrooms that look like single dorm rooms, furnished with twin beds, desks and armoires. Staff and residents at Avenues for Homeless Youth shelter in north Minneapolis named the bedrooms after social justice and civil rights leaders, and popular entertainers.

"We have the Muhammad Ali room and the Selena room and the Nelson Mandela room and Obama," Executive Director Deb Loon said.

Downstairs are large common areas, where teens will share three meals a day.

"When a young person moves in here, they'll get all their basic needs met which is the first and most important thing for us to do: provide a safe place, meet all their basic needs so they can stop worrying about that," Loon said. "Then they can start to think about what they want for themselves and what their future might look like."

Most residents will stay an average of three to four months while gaining skills to live on their own, she said.

Loon says faith and civic organizations, foundations and government pushed to create Brooklyn Avenues. She hopes the model will catch on in other Twin Cities suburbs.

"Their collective goal is to create a safe place for their kids so that they can stay in their community, continue to go to school, get the support they need and remain community members here instead of having to leave and go to the city to get their help," she said.