BAXTER -- Cardboard boxes used to house homeless people don't line the streets here like they do in larger metro areas, but that doesn't mean homeless people don't exist in the Brainerd lakes area.
Fresh out of high school, Michelle Hansen seems to be living the life of a regular 18 year old. She has a car and a job, but the reality is she doesn't have a place to live.
Hansen was forced to leave her family's home because of what she calls "tension between family members in the house."
With nowhere else to go, Hansen turned to Lutheran Social Services personnel, who referred her to their runaway and homeless youth program.
The program, operating out of the Baxter Youth Shelter building, serves Crow Wing, Cass, Aitkin, Todd, Wadena, Mille Lacs and Morrison counties. The program helps homeless and runaway youth, ages 14 to 21, get their lives on track by helping them find affordable housing and jobs.
When someone enters the program, an evaluation is done to find out what has led them to homelessness or to run away from home.
"First of all, their immediate needs are addressed. We feed them, offer them a shower and then formulate a game plan," said Kirsten Harris, coordinator of the LSS runaway and homeless youth and street outreach programs. "We discuss the problems they are having with their family."
One of the first questions Harris asks troubled youth is, "Do you have a place to sleep tonight?" If not, people under 18 without a social worker or parole officer enter the Basic Center, or runaway and homeless youth program, which helps them either return home, enter a foster home or find other living accommodations.
The program is funded by a federal grant, so there is no cost to the youth or their family.
Because Hansen is 18, she's too old to enter a foster home, so she is what Harris describes as a "couch-hopper." She stays with friends until her welcome is worn out, then finds another friend to stay with.
"I'm hoping to find (permanent) housing soon to be more independent," Hansen said.
As No. 485 on the waiting list for affordable rental housing, Hansen was told by January 2005 she'd have a place to live.
"A lot of large organizations see people as numbers. They're not looking at the reality of, 'I need a place to stay tonight,'" Harris said.
The Baxter Youth Shelter used to house people in crisis situations, but since it closed last October because of budget cuts, finding immediate housing for 18 to 21 year olds has been tough. Harris said a grant is in the works to start a transitional living program, offering on-site housing for people like Hansen who need a place to stay for six to 18 months, while waiting for other options to become available.
"The transitional living program would fill in the gaps," Harris said. "It's common sense (to have a program like this)."
Harris said for any of the LSS youth programs to work properly, people's priorities need to be in order. They need to be willing to help themselves, even if it means leaving their girlfriend or boyfriend or obeying rules they don't agree with.
Harris treats Hansen as her star pupil, saying she does exactly what she is asked to do.
"Michelle is doing things for herself, I'm just helping her see the big picture so it doesn't feel so overwhelming," Harris said.
"I need a place to live -- bad. I'm not going out to party, I have more important things to do. I need to be getting my life straightened out," Hansen said.
A street outreach program, where adults pass out information cards at schools and teen hangouts, was developed to increase awareness of the runaway and homeless youth program.
"Eventually kids get to recognize your face and that's what we want," Harris said.
Area churches have donated clothing, household items and money to the runaway and homeless youth program, as well as other LSS youth programs, but more donations are needed. For more information contact Harris at 828-4399.
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