Seeking shelter: Couch surfing teens offered stabilizing resources

May 2009 Posted in Community

By Dixon Bledsoe

Imagine sleeping wherever there happens to be an available bed – friend’s house, a shelter, perhaps an abandoned home. Called “couch surfing,” it’s a way of life for several area teens.

PLACES TO TURN  

Homes Offering Shelter to Teens
503-588-5825

Northwest Human Services
Crisis and information hotline:
503-581-5535
It also offers links to mental health,
medical and dental services for
eligible people regardless of age.

“Couch surfing isn’t fun for any of these kids,” said Helen Thomas, who recently received Silverton’s Distinguished Citizen award with Laura Wanker for their work at Silverton High School’s Alternative Education Program.

Fifteen students in the Alternative Education Program are homeless, Thomas said.

“So blankets, food, clothing, heat and an understanding ear are part of the curriculum,” she said. “When they hurt, we hurt.”

Thomas also believes it is paramount for the public to understand that these are good kids. In almost every case, they are not homeless by choice or because of unruly behavior or a rebellious nature preventing them from being at home.

“Sometimes there is no other choice, whether a single parent becomes terminally ill and unable to provide for the youth, abuse or neglect is an issue or families need to have some space while things are sorted out,” Thomas said.

In 2006, the Salem/Keizer homeless education program said there were 633 teens identified as homeless.

Gary Fink, director of Homes Offering Shelter to Teens in Salem said he has seen about five youth in HOST from Silverton in the last six months.

HOST, a program that is part of Northwest Human Services Inc., is a short-term shelter for homeless and runaway youth ages 11 to 17. In the shelter, they are taught life skills and participate in groups designed to give them additional information on a range of topics. Young people can receive parenting classes, linkage to other social service programs and family mediation through HOST. The target audience is runaway and homeless teens from Salem and the surrounding area.

Capt. Jeff Fossholm said from the Silverton Police Department’s standpoint there isn’t a significant problem with homeless teens in Silverton, “in part because some kids choose not to go home but may be staying with friends or the family of friends. We might not hear about it, unless the parents call in to report runaways.”

Silverton’s Parental Responsibility law, which gained national recognition several years ago as one of the first of its kind in the country, holds parents accountable for the actions of their kids. This may have an affect on homelessness among the juvenile population as well.

“If we do see kids committing status offenses such as violating curfew, we return the juvenile to his or her parents, and may cite them,” Fossholm said. “Kids who are cited do not pay fines, but may be referred to Municipal Court or Peer Court. Frequent flyers (those with multiple violations) will go to Municipal Court. The Peer Court is a great program – well-run and ‘adjudicated’ by the offender’s peers. It has been highly successful.”

Brent Earhart, chief of Mt. Angel’s police force, echoed some of his Silverton counterpart’s thoughts.

“We don’t have a big issue here. St. Joseph’s Shelter here in town works with families and kids who are homeless, and helps line them up with other resources, such as homeless teen shelters around Marion County.”

Silverton Area Community Aid is a big supporter of the alternative education program that Thomas and Wanker run, and the kids enrolled in the program who are homeless.

“Helen and I talk frequently and we are definitely a resource and support for their wonderful program,” said Sally Eliason, SACA executive director. “We don’t specifically ask for donations of food items for their kids, but just try to help when needed. We have been able to provide them with before, during, and after-school snacks and popular protein items like peanut butter. We are a place that can store food for and deliver food to them.”

Most professionals who deal with kids and families feel there are many kids who are actually homeless, but they don’t show up in the statistics because they may roam from one friend’s house to another or sleep in their cars.

What they do agree on is with the economy in chaos and family stress levels increasing, the problem may get larger. They advise teens and their families get help before issues turn into crises, and to call those who are there to help.

This includes other family members providing some short-term shelter and relief. A little space often works wonders. The clergy, counselors at school, and private/public counselors, therapists, social workers and psychologists also help.

“We don’t see a lot of homelessness in our young people,” Fossholm said. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t there. But in many cases, they are staying somewhere and we get involved if and when problems occur.”

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