A Safety Net for Local Homeless Youth

What does “drop-in” mean to you? A cup of coffee with your neighbor, a visit with your mom or a quick manicure? Now, imagine that you’re homeless. Even worse, you’re on your own and only 17. For homeless young people, “drop-in” can mean a lifeline to their most basic needs – food and a safe place to sleep. A local non-profit, MoveFwd (formerly Teens Alone), is partnering with Eden Prairie’s Hennepin County Library and People Reaching Out to People’s (PROP) food shelf to offer drop-in services to Eden Prairie’s homeless kids.

Eden Prairie is a suburb filled with spacious parks, great schools and pretty neighborhoods. It’s surprising that young people are homeless in our community. “Couch-hopping” is one of the reasons youth homelessness is almost invisible in our corner of the metro area. Kids are sleeping on friends’ couches – taking turns with different families – because they lack stable housing. During the summer, those without couch-hopping options camped in cars and under bridges. Now that the nights are colder, they need to find warmer, safer places to sleep.

In some ways, it’s harder being homeless in Eden Prairie than in downtown Minneapolis. Public transportation is limited. There are fewer options for indoor public spaces to stay warm. Because the problem is rarer in the suburbs, homeless kids may feel even more isolated than they would downtown. It’s difficult to be homeless and blend in at school.

About a year ago, MoveFwd staff recognized there were homeless young people in Eden Prairie who weren’t getting the help they needed. One significant barrier: transportation. MoveFwd offices are centrally located for the four school districts they serve (Eden Prairie, Hopkins, St Louis Park and Wayzata). But it’s complicated for Eden Prairie students to navigate to the Hopkins offices on buses. MoveFwd decided to “leave no stone unturned” in proactively finding homeless kids.

The case managers at MoveFwd also knew that the Eden Prairie library was a safe space where homeless young people studied and accessed the internet. They sought out a partnership with the librarians there last fall. MoveFwd posts hours on its website to inform young people they can drop-in at the library or their Hopkins offices without an appointment. They can connect to places to sleep and to free counseling. MoveFwd case managers  bring an “outreach bag” to drop-in hours at the library containing items similar to those in the main office’s “personal care closet:” gift cards to Cub and Target, bus tokens, shelf-stable food, clean socks, toiletries and blankets. Drop-in clients looking for work might get help with obtaining a social security number or writing a resume.

The library proved to be a perfect fit and the MoveFwd staff was committed to increase its outreach further. They added drop-in hours at PROP’s food shelf in Eden Prairie and started “street outreach,” meeting homeless young people where they congregate to help them access MoveFwd services.

The masters level counselors and case managers at MoveFwd are reluctant to take any credit for their clients’ successes. They instead focus on the resilience and courage required of young people navigating unstable housing and acknowledge the hard work it takes to juggle school, a job and homelessness. But they are literally saving lives. Even in our upscale community, it’s not safe for a young person to “camp” outdoors overnight. Some homeless young people trade sex for a roof over their heads. The collaboration between MoveFwd and both our local library and PROP helps connect  Eden Prairie youth to safe places to sleep, food, transportation and ultimately, more hopeful circumstances. They know they’re doing meaningful work.  The agency’s latest annual survey indicated that 96% of their clients said, “after working with MoveFwd I am better at solving problems.” School staff in the four districts served rated MoveFwd services 4.7 on a 5 point scale; 100% of school nurses and guidance counselors  said they would continue to refer their students to MoveFwd for counseling and case management.

If you assume kids are homeless because they’re “rebellious” or “lazy,” Sarah Granger, MoveFwd Executive Director, would like to correct you – diplomatically, because she’s gracious and kind to her core. “Homelessness is not a choice. It’s a preventable tragedy.” These young people are often striving to stay in school while juggling part time jobs with sports and school activities. She says they want to stay in Eden Prairie to be near school, their jobs and friends. They’re often afraid to go to a downtown shelter. Even facing the challenges of homelessness, they are generous. Granger says that when they offer a homeless young person extra food, it’s not uncommon to hear, “thanks, but I want to leave some for the other kids.”

MoveFwd has been around since 1990, founded to offer free counseling to help young people stay safe.  They counsel kids “up stream” to prevent homelessness. They tailor custom counseling groups to meet requests from individual schools. Most referrals for counseling come from school guidance counselors. MoveFwd works with 18 middle and high schools in four west suburban school districts, including Eden Prairie. They helped 389 clients ages 12-24 in the west metro last year; 130 of them were homeless.

MoveFwd also counsels parents of at-risk kids. They frequently keep families together, preventing homelessness. Youth-focused reasons for getting help at MoveFwd center primarily around family situations (including conflicts, communication, financial problems and parents’ mental health) and clients’ anxiety and depression. Many young people report multiple reasons for needing help. While preserving its counseling roots, the agency recently expanded its repertoire of services to meet the community’s needs. In addition to adding drop-in services and street outreach at multiple locations, they expanded case management services, added a housing program and worked to increase housing capacity in the western suburbs. MoveFwd also continually advocates for local homeless and at-risk kids at community, county and state levels.

The MoveFwd website assures young people that “asking for help can be the bravest thing to do” and that their services are both free and judgment-free. Listening to Ms. Granger explain how the agency helps homeless youth is both heartbreaking and an inspiration. It’s nice to know there’s a safety net in our community for kids who are homeless through no fault of their own. Granger says the most common goal among MoveFwd clients is to graduate or return to school.  Eden Prairie can be an even stronger community if we pitch in to help our homeless young people so they can work to achieve that goal.

Visit movefwdmn.org to learn how donations help kids. Link to compelling clients profiles in “about us/our stories.” There’s also a link to their Amazon.com wish list. Help build awareness by liking them on Facebook (@movefwdmn).