A place to lay their heads: Teen shelter is 1 year old
The House has been a home to 62 Grand Valley teens and young adults in its first year as a youth homeless shelter.
The shelter, an actual house at a mostly secret address to protect the homeless 13- to 20-year-olds who stay there, accepted its first client May 2, 2012. The shelter takes up to 10 teens at a time. The only requirement beyond age, housing status and alerting parents of minors within two hours of arrival to get permission for the teen to stay at The House is that teens who want to stay there have a goal of self-sufficiency when they move out.
“This is not a flop house for people who are tired of couch-surfing. Our target is teens who have goals and are working toward a new future,” said John Mok-Lamme, executive director of Karis, Inc., the nonprofit group that runs The House.
Teens who have been kicked out of their homes or left their families due to a bad situation have few options beyond couch surfing, according to Mok-Lamme. People have to be at least 18 or accompanied by an adult to stay at Homeward Bound of the Grand Valley and the closest youth shelters are a four-hour drive east or west of Grand Junction. Going from couch-to-couch or floor-to-floor is not only taxing but can lead teens to dangerous situations such as abuse or contact with drugs.
A therapist provided without charge to The House by Colorado West Mental Health helps teens work through trauma sustained at home or during their time as homeless youth. That therapist, Suzi Goudzwaard, also helps current and former residents of The House tackle mental health and substance abuse issues, plan for the future and develop skills that will help them maintain employment and housing. She meets with families to discuss healthy relationships if a teen leaves The House to return home, which is where nearly half of teens go after they leave The House.
Goudzwaard meets with teens at The House or in the community, often at coffee shops. It makes the experience of therapy feel less clinical and more like a friendly meeting, she said.
“Giving them a positive experience with therapy may help them seek it out later” in life, Goudzwaard said. “A lot of them wouldn’t come to a mental health center, so we’re reaching them in public.”
A first-year report from The House shows 27 of the 62 youth who have been through The House had a mental illness, with all but six having depression or anxiety issues as their main concern. Most teens reported an increase in support from family and friends during their time at The House and nearly half experienced a decrease in depression, anxiety and exposure to harmful activities.
Six of the 62 teens who stayed at The House in its first year still live there, while 26 went back to their families. Twenty got their own housing, moved in with someone, went to school or were placed with a family. The remaining 10 were asked to leave the program, returned to homelessness, did not participate in housing placement or fled from placement.
In an attempt to minimize the number of teens returning to the homeless community, The House tries to build a support system for teens by connecting them to a mentor, a small house staff including a program coordinator and case manager, Ashley Elliott; dozens of volunteers; and an agreement with Cafe V, a restaurant at 1014 N. Fifth St. that has promised at least 100 hours of work each week to teens who live at or who have lived at The House. “Katie,” who did not want her real name published due to a strained relationship with her family, works five or six days a week at Cafe V. She said both the staff there and residents of The House, where she lived from early February to mid-March before moving to a host home, have become her family.
Katie remembers her first days at The House were somewhat nerve-wracking because she didn’t know anyone. That soon changed.
“It was a super-positive environment. I wasn’t used to that,” she said. “I never knew what it was like to be part of a family because I didn’t have that (environment) before.”
The newly-finished back porch, wide kitchen table, and comfy couches where residents gather on the home’s main floor to talk, catch a nap or play video games were not what Katie pictured before she came to The House. She imagined a sterile building with rows of beds, not the three-bathroom, furnished home with bunk bed-filled rooms for boys in the basement and for girls on the top floor.
Staff supervise medication distribution and counseling with teens during the day. In the evenings, volunteers cook meals with and spend time with the teens and, after being vetted, can stay overnight for supervision to make sure there is always an adult in the home. Curfew is 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on the weekends, although minors have their curfews dictated by their parents. Teens are expected to take responsibility for their education and employment.
“I don’t ever remember having someone parenting me. As long as I led a positive life, people were fine,” Katie said. “I woke up at 6, went to school, went to work, ate dinner and went to bed.”
Elliott said teens at the shelter work on a variety of goals for the future, from getting to school or work to learning how to prepare for a baby that’s on the way. Elliott has kept in touch with students who ended up at Collbran Job Corps and one who got a scholarship to the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Katie’s goals for after she graduates from high school this spring include joining AmeriCorps and finding a basement apartment all her own. As for The House, Mok-Lamme said the future will feature an upcoming remodel of the home to add a bathroom and update surfaces. He also wants to build more bridges with civic groups, employers and churches in the area, work with Hilltop Community Resources to get housing for teens that are harder to transition out of homelessness and possibly bring in a psychiatrist.
Anyone interested in more information about volunteering or living at The House can visit http://www.thehousegj.org or call 234-1810.