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As empty nesters, Kathy and Doug Dunmire had plenty of extra space in their Inver Grove Heights home.

So when the couple heard about a new program in Dakota County to host homeless youth, they eagerly signed up to volunteer.

"It kind of pulled at your heartstrings a little bit," Doug Dunmire said. "Maybe this is the time where we really need to step up. We have the space."

The new program, run by the YMCA of the North, formerly YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities, gives homeless 18- to 24-year-olds a temporary place to stay as they work with a case manager to find a permanent home. It's modeled after longstanding programs such as Minneapolis-based Avenues for Homeless Youth, which has had a host home program since 1997.

Homelessness may be less visible in suburbs than urban areas, but Dakota County, like regions throughout Minnesota, is seeing a rise in the number of people struggling to find a stable home, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic as rent prices and unemployment increase.

"We have an affordability problem in Dakota County," said Rebecca Bowers with Dakota County Social Services. "We're working really hard to increase affordable housing but they're very expensive long-term projects."

Last month, the first permanent supportive housing development for families in Dakota County opened in Inver Grove Heights, 40 units for formerly homeless families called Cahill Place. The vacancy rate in the rental market in Dakota County was less than 3% in 2017, with an average rent of $1,063, which can be difficult to afford with a minimum wage job.

A least 1,300 people a year are without a home in the south metro county, with the two shelters in the county (one for families and one for single adults) both at capacity.

"I remember back 10-15 years ago and there were people from Dakota County saying there was not homeless youth in their county. So to have such a culture shift … is huge progress," said Beth Holger, CEO of the Link, which has a drop-in center for homeless youth in Apple Valley.

Since March, the drop-in center has served about 450 homeless youth — defined in state law as anyone under the age of 24 — which is nearly 100 more people than last year. The nonprofit is also expanding street outreach, visiting parks, schools and store parking lots to reach teens and young adults without a permanent place to stay.

"Right now there is just a huge need," Holger said.

While homelessness may be more visible in Minneapolis and St. Paul with sprawling homeless encampments, it's more hidden in suburbs, especially among young adults, who may sleep in their car or couch hop.

The Link has seen an increase in the number of 18- to 24-year-olds in need of emergency shelter using hotel vouchers during COVID-19. There are about 100 youth emergency shelter beds in Minnesota but none in Dakota County.

Need for more host homes

The YMCA also has host homes in Anoka, Hennepin and Ramsey counties, with eight current hosts across all the counties.

So far, the Dunmires are the only hosts in Dakota County. Organizers had planned for up to four host homes this year, but COVID-19 concerns has slowed interest. Bowers said one person was interested in volunteering, but when their employer shifted to remote work, their spare bedroom became a home office.

The pandemic has also made it more difficult for homeless youth to find an opening at a shelter.

"There are so many homeless youth that a majority of the public don't realize [are here]," said Jesse Mamaril, the youth program manager at the YMCA, adding that the host homes program is one way to help. "It's a community effort to alleviate youth homelessness … there's a clear need across Minnesota."

Up to a dozen 18- to 24-year-olds are interested in participating in the program if more hosts step up, Bowers said.

Organizers hope to expand the program to 15 host homes in 2021 and are looking for donations to cover the estimated $50,000 cost for a case manager, recruitment and training. (Funding for the program this year included $4,000 from the Burnsville Rotary and $2,500 from ReStored Thrift Store in Lakeville.)

To sign up, call the YMCA at 612-208-7381. Hosts work with a family advocate while youth work with a case worker, often living there for six months to a year. The experience has been rewarding for the Dunmires.

"Just this idea of being able to be a safe place, a stable place where the youth in our county can start accomplishing some of their goals, that's what we can do, " Kathy Dunmire said. "And they've got somebody who cares."

Kathy, who works at Burnsville-based nonprofit 360 Communities, and her husband Doug, a chemical engineer, hosted a 24-year-old woman and are now hosting her 21-year-old brother who is working for Amazon and saving up for college. They have dinners together and even went sailing.

"The youth are really the heroes in this story because there's so much aligned against them," Doug Dunmire said. "If I had all the obstacles they had, I would be completely overwhelmed … We're just a small piece of their puzzle."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141