As Stephen Rose describes the death of his mother and tumult of his teens in Anoka and Coon Rapids, his shoulders sag and he lowers his eyes.
"I've bounced around a lot," he said. "It sucks to admit I am homeless."
But Rose, who is 23, is determined to do something about it. He's become a regular at a drop-in center in Anoka for young homeless people. There, he can take a shower, wash clothes and talk with case managers about finding a job and, eventually, an apartment.
Hope 4 Youth's drop-in center is one of several facilities that have opened across the Twin Cities in recent years to serve the needs of homeless teenagers and young adults. At least 10 drop-in centers, transitional housing complexes and apartments have opened or are in the works from Chanhassen and Coon Rapids to St. Paul. In the past two years, the Minnesota Legislature has allocated more than $5 million to help fund programs and facilities for homeless young people.
While not every city has been welcoming, many suburban leaders are acknowledging that some young people from their communities don't have a stable place to call home.
"We suburbs have come to realize homeless kids are in our schools and they're everywhere. They are not sleeping in a cardboard box under a bridge in Minneapolis," said Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde.
Programs targeted at young adults can help prevent a downward spiral into chronic homelessness. So much can change for youths, said Suzie Misel, of Community Action Partnership of Scott, Carver and Dakota counties. They have time to gain new skills and benefit greatly just from having a case manager who believes in them, she said.
"It's not about giving a handout," said Hope 4 Youth Executive Director Cheryl Jensen. "It's working with youth so they can be successful."
The hidden homeless
The Wilder Foundation identified 1,151 unaccompanied youths under 21 staying in Minnesota shelters and transitional housing facilities in October 2012, according to a report released in May.
That number is down slightly from its peak during the recession, but it is likely only a piece of the true total. The organization estimated the actual number to be around 4,080 youths on any given night. It's difficult to count homeless teens and young adults because they often stay with friends or sleep in places not intended for habitation, according to the report.
Mindy Paurus understands what it's like to hide your living situation. Now 24, she spent most of her senior year at Eastview High School staying with friends and family.
"I tried to keep it a secret as much as possible," Paurus said. "I did not want to see that pitying look from my friends."
Young people often don't know where to turn for shelter or how to navigate the complicated social service system, said Beth Holger-Ambrose, director of the Link, which works with at-risk youths in the Twin Cities.
The lucky ones get into a transitional shelter program like Lincoln Place in Eagan, where Paurus now lives. Residents of the apartment building can work with on-site caseworkers who help them access social services, find jobs and learn life skills, like budgeting and paying bills.
One indication of the need: Lincoln Place had to turn away 181 people last year, Holger-Ambrose said.
Paurus moved into her apartment there after eight months of couch hopping. It was a shock, she said. No more waiting for a host to tire of her. No more feeling like a burden.
At Lincoln Place she was able to focus on school and get two associates degrees. She is a paid intern at a new Apple Valley drop-in center and is trying to spread the word about it.
"I want to leave my mark in helping someone who has been where I have been," Paurus said.
An uneasy partnership
Homeless youths will fare better if they remain in the community they know and do not have to trek to Minneapolis or St. Paul to access services, said Sarah Granger, program director for the Hopkins nonprofit Teens Alone.
Rose grew up in the north suburbs. After his mother died of cancer in 2001, he moved in with his uncle in Coon Rapids. But he acted out, experimenting with drugs and getting arrested. "I ended up getting kicked out at age 17," Rose said.
But he stayed nearby. He sometimes sleeps at friends' houses. Other nights, he sleeps outside or in apartment stairwells.
"It's safer for young folks around here," Rose said, noting he worries less about falling victim to a robbery or other crime in the suburbs.
And he's hopeful things will eventually work out.
Hope 4 Youth case manager Eddie Rogers said the group emphasizes the local connection when trying to convince hesitant suburbs to establish services for homeless youths.
"Everyone should be on board with them finding a safe place to be and some structure," Rogers said.
Still, it can be an uneasy partnership for some communities.
Hundreds showed up at Edina City Hall to weigh in on transitional youth apartments there. The Edina City Council approved it anyway.
The city of Anoka allowed Hope 4 Youth to open its drop-in center in 2013 but then passed a moratorium on additional homeless shelters to block the nonprofit's efforts to open transitional apartments. Anoka already has a 60-bed homeless shelter.
"We do so much more than our share," said Anoka Mayor Phil Rice. "We do have some frustrations with homeless, vagrancy, that kind of stuff in town."
Hope 4 Youth is now asking the Coon Rapids City Council to approve an apartment project near Northtown Mall. It already passed the city planning commission unanimously with words of welcome and tears. The 12 proposed studio apartments staffed with case workers will help tenants develop a rental history and hold down a job or attend school.
"Sometimes, as a young person, there's only so much they can do on their own and then they need a hand to get to where they need to be," Granger said. "And sometimes that's just a place to live."
Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804
Jessie Van Berkel • 952-746-3280