Raised by a drug-addicted mother who moved the family often, Gideon had a chaotic childhood, and his coming-of-age got off to an equally rough start. At 22, he was living in Anoka’s only homeless shelter with nowhere to go and no one to turn to.
That’s when the Andersons offered him a bedroom in their Andover home, as part of the Greater Twin Cities YMCA’s Community Home Host Program. Gideon jumped at the chance to spend a year under the family’s roof in the north metro suburb.
“I am just happy to have a place to lay my head at night and to be with people who enjoy my company,” said Gideon, now enrolled at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and working on getting his driver’s license.
In the battle against youth homelessness, suburbs have fewer shelter beds and resources compared to big cities, and they sometimes lack the political will to offer those services. But suburbanites have one tool that city dwellers often lack: extra bedrooms.
That’s why the YMCA started its home host program in Anoka County, pairing homeless youth with families willing to share a room in their homes for a year for free.
The program, part of a constellation of services the Y offers for homeless youth, has gotten off to a modest start, with 10 families opening their homes to a young person. Some are finishing high school while others are trying to figure out their next step toward adulthood.
The Y program provides structure and safeguards — including background checks, social workers and access to services — but is less cumbersome than taking on foster parenthood.
It also allows homeless young people to stay in suburban communities where they may have grown up, rather than having to go to where services are available in Minneapolis or St. Paul. Funding comes from the state, the Greater Twin Cities United Way and the Y.
“Not all young people are ready to live independently, especially if they are struggling to finish high school,” said Stacy Sweeney, the Y’s youth support program director. “They want people to encourage them. They want to be safe.”
Some say it’s also a more palatable and affordable homeless solution for suburban officials, some of whom balk at additional shelter beds or affordable apartments that they believe could make their city a magnet for homeless people.
“We know there is a need in the suburbs, but bricks and mortar are expensive,” said Betty Notto, the Y’s youth support program manager.
It’s like a calling
The Y modeled its program after the two-decade-old GLBT Host Home Program for homeless youth that first operated at the nonprofit YouthLink and later moved to Avenues for Homeless Youth. That program has worked with about 200 young people since its inception.
Family instability, including parents who are homeless or addicted, or conflicts such as those over sexual orientation, can force teens and young adults to fend for themselves.
Many young people may not identify themselves as homeless. They live day-to-day by couch hopping, clandestinely camping in suburban parks, or sleeping in stairwells, cars and public bathrooms.
“They’re not homeless under a bridge, but they are not safe,” Notto said.
Who takes in young adults? Many are families that already volunteer and donate time and money in the community, and have a desire to give back at a deeper level. Some are motivated by faith. They range from empty nesters to people with school-age children.
“It’s almost like a calling,” Notto said.
The Y requires host families to have an empty bedroom with a door and to be accepting of all races and sexual orientations. It attempts to match families and individuals with similar expectations; some parties seek a roommate-style situation, while others want to share meals and family activities.
Many suburbs have limited access to public transit, so young people are told up front of that limitation and other house rules.
Jeff and Carolyn Anderson have opened their home to two foreign exchange students over the years. The couple taught Sunday school, and Jeff volunteered at the Hope 4 Youth’s drop-in center in Anoka. That’s where he met Gideon, who would stop by to do laundry and pick up food and supplies.
Gideon, who asked that his last name not be used for reasons of safety, had moved from Illinois to Minnesota in January with plans to move in with a friend he’d made on the internet. Those plans quickly fell apart, and he landed at the Stepping Stone homeless shelter in Anoka.
“It was humbling and a little bit scary,” he said. “I had nowhere to go from there.”
Gideon, who is quiet and artistic, impressed Jeff. “He kept talking about Gideon,” Carolyn Anderson said.
Realizing they could help a young person similar to their own three children at a critical juncture in his life, they offered him a room. “It was something else we thought we could do. We have the space and the interest,” Jeff Anderson said.
The Y program provided structure and help. “We needed access to the social workers and the resources that we suburbanites don’t know about,” Jeff Anderson said. “There’s enough background checks both ways so you are not stepping into a situation you can’t handle. We have a 13-year-old son and you want to make sure it’s safe.”
Gideon easily fit into the family’s daily rhythms, sharing meals, watching movies and interacting with them. He welcomed advice from the Andersons, who helped him quit a summer job that had become uncomfortable and encouraged him to enroll at Anoka-Ramsey.
“You need someone to be your advocate,” Carolyn Anderson said. “That’s what we suburban parents do for our own kids every day,” Jeff Anderson added.
Gideon, who is interested in illustrations, character design and graphic novels, said the biggest challenge for him has been learning to relax and settle in.
“Let’s be honest: I have abandonment issues,” he said. “I was just worried it would all fall out from under me. I was worried it would totally crash and burn and I would lose another family.”
The Andersons said they consider Gideon to be family. “We knew it was a good fit,” Jeff Anderson said.