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A bishop's view: Homeless youths deserve a piece of state housing cash

This is an artist’s rendering of the Center for Changing Lives, a shelter for homeless youths in Duluth planned by Lutheran Social Service. (Submitted photo)

Millions around the world and in our community recently marked Easter, which celebrates not only the resurrection of Jesus but the power to live a new life, a life that moves beyond self to bless others.

There’s a place in our community I visited recently that seeks to bring just that to our youths year round. It’s called Renaissance, which means “rebirth.” It’s a place run by Lutheran Social Service that offers safe sleep at night, support and direction from trusted adults during the day and hope when there seems to be none in sight.

I had been there before and am proud of its work. Young people there find acceptance, stability, discipline and accountability. Their descriptions of the kind of homeless and hopeless lives they lived before Renaissance always moved me to the deepest part of my soul. And they always made me think more deeply about community.

We know what works to help these young people find stability and to make the transition to independence and adulthood. Duluth needs to be a place where that support and hope are woven throughout our community. In our community, an estimated 150 youths are on the streets and feel they are unable to go home.

Here’s where some of the homeless youths we serve said they stayed at night in a recent survey: apartment building stairwells, their cars, other people’s cars, garages, empty houses, under school bleachers, and tents and campgrounds. All are unsuitable places for kids on their own to sleep with safety. For youths, it’s especially critical to catch them early so they can avoid homelessness, a situation that if left untreated can last years into adulthood.

State investment in affordable housing is essential to providing a bridge to safe living situations and hope for a better life for people struggling with mental illness, unemployment and no place to call home. It’s also important for youths. Right now there’s a $100 million bonding proposal in the Minnesota Legislature to help build affordable housing and shelter. Lutheran Social Service plans to apply for a small portion of this bond money to build a groundbreaking new facility for youths in Duluth called the Center for Changing Lives. It will serve as a model for supporting our young people in other communities in Minnesota.

That’s why I am urging our legislators to fully support $100 million in bonding for affordable housing and to make it a priority. This is not only about human dignity and the well-being of our kids; it will provide a much-needed venue to boost our economy with new jobs.

The reality is we really can’t afford not to make this investment. What we do right now can have lifelong implications, not only for youths but also for our community.

It’s estimated that youths who fail to graduate from high school, for example, can cost their communities $750,000 over a lifetime in lost tax revenue, health-care costs, incarceration costs and social services.

I’ve worked with young people all my life. I have seen what happens when adults take genuine interest in loving, understanding and helping mentor young people, especially those who are hurting. Think what these young people could add to our community with their creativity, hard work and brain power.

According to research conducted by Wilder in 2012, youths experience an $11,543 increase in annual wages in their first year after leaving homelessness, a high school graduate’s lifetime earnings are $476,000 higher than a dropout’s, and society receives a return of greater than $4 for every $1 invested in supportive services for homeless youths.

Ask your legislators to support $100 million in bonding for affordable housing that will create housing for people who truly need it, including our kids right here in Duluth. Let’s help youths find healthy transitions off the streets and toward healthy, productive futures. Let’s bring the hope and abundant life God intends for all his children.

The Rev. Thomas Aitken of Duluth is bishop of the Northeastern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He’s also a board member for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota.

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