A pandemic experiment to get homeless teens off the streets for a few hours during the day proved so successful that El Paso County’s homeless shelter for youths is working to create a permanent drop-in day center specifically for displaced teens and young adults.
“Nationally, drop-in centers are known as the most effective way to reach young people living outside, and we now have the data that shows our community urgently needs a drop-in center,” said Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of The Place, which operates a shelter, transitional housing and other services for homeless youths ages 15 to 24.
The Place worked with Inside Out Youth Services, which supports LGBTQ-affiliated teens, to set up a temporary winter day center for homeless youths. Inside Out closed in-person programs and switched to online services during the COVID-19 pandemic and offered its community area for the drop-in location.
The pilot center operated on weekdays from Dec. 10 until April 1, and in that time 124 homeless youths used it, Kemppainen said. Of those, 35 youths, or 28% percent, exited homelessness, she said.
That’s six times the number of youths who left street life in the same period the previous year, when only a drop-in room was available at The Place, Kemppainen said.
“That dedicated space that’s large enough to sit down in and build a trusting relationship is the core thing that made a difference — when youth are able to come in off the street and relax, let their guards down, de-escalate and breathe,” she said.
The program also has the potential to save the community money, Kemppainen noted. One person living in homelessness for a year costs taxpayers $35,578, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reported in 2017.
Some of the youths using the drop-in center got into an apartment through The Place or another assistance program, or are sharing accommodations with family or friends.
“These young people have experienced so much complex trauma that they’re not trusting of adults, with good reason, and for them to be able to get a bite of food, a glass of water, without anybody pushing an agenda is what’s needed,” Kemppainen said.
The Place provided staff to hang out, talk to those who wandered in and see if they could help them move forward.
“It’s a comfortable, inclusive space where people are treated with respect and dignity,” Jessie Pocock, executive director of Inside Out Youth Services, said of the area that served as the drop-in center.
While her organization successfully brought its programs online, with nearly 100 new young people registering for LGBTQ support services during the pandemic, Pocock said, “we knew young people experiencing homelessness were not going to get served on a virtual platform.”
The two organizations have different missions, but some youths they serve overlap. About one-third of homeless youths who seek out the teen shelter also self-identify as LGBTQ, Kemppainen said, and have faced discrimination from their families, classmates or others.
Conversely, about one-third of the 350 youths Inside Out works with each year are homeless, Pocock said.
“Creating partnerships with organizations like Inside Out means we do better by young people,” Kemppainen said.
Establishing a permanent drop-in day center for youth is now a long-term goal, she said.
"It's so clear young people need more access to services," Pocock said. "Let's work on getting them housing, helping them get a job and providing a positive, sober space where they can hang out and be affirmed and respected in their identities."