Safety, in small numbers: Organizers hope more troubled kids can benefit from "Safe Place" initiative
Finding himself on the streets of Duluth, Jon Knauer knew he had a safe place he could turn to.
“I just told them that I wasn’t really doing good,” Knauer said during a recent interview. “I was in an unsafe environment. … I wanted to clean myself up, focus on a straight path.”
Operated by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, Renaissance House offers transitional housing and other services to youth and young adults.
But it’s also one of 28 Duluth locations designated as a “Safe Place” — a place kids can go as a first step if they’ve been kicked out of the house or run away or otherwise gotten in trouble.
The program is experiencing growing pains. It’s short on volunteers and word has been slow to get out to student populations, organizers say.
In almost a year of operation, only eight youths have taken advantage of Safe Place, said Dawn Shykes, program director for LSS in Duluth. But that isn’t below expectations, because organizers really didn’t know what to expect.
“We have purposely tried growing slowly right now to be able to accommodate the needs and make sure we’re doing things correctly,” Shykes said.
The National Runaway Switchboard estimates that on any given night there are about 1.3 million homeless youth living unsupervised on the streets, in abandoned buildings, with friends or with strangers. These youth are at a higher risk of physical abuse, sexual exploitation, mental health disabilities, substance abuse, and death. It’s estimated that 5,000 unaccompanied youth die each year as a result of assault, illness or suicide.
And data suggest that the current recession has yielded an increase in homeless and runaway youth.
The Duluth schools reported 255 of its students were homeless in December 2012. That included students sleeping in cars, tents and shelters as well as those in transitional housing.
Always on call
Founded in Louisville, Ky., in 1983, Safe Place was announced last March for Duluth and launched on April 24.
It made Minnesota the 41st state in the nation to have a Safe Place program. Duluth Safe Places include fire stations, libraries, the St. Luke’s hospital emergency room, the Valley Youth Center, the Boys & Girls Club, both Members Cooperative locations, Piedmont Dental and Duluth Transit Authority buses, among others.
Each is identified by what looks like a diagonal yellow street sign bearing the words “Safe Place.”
Personnel at each of the locations have been taught what to do when a youth arrives asking for help. They call LSS’s Bethany Crisis Shelter, where someone is always on call, Shykes said. A volunteer is contacted to meet the youth at the Safe Place. In some cases, the situation can be resolved immediately and the youth restored to their parents or guardians. Others are taken to the shelter, where they can stay for up to 21 days as a longer-term solution is worked out.
It’s a slightly different process if the youth takes refuge on a bus, said Heath Hickok, the DTA’s marketing director. Then, the driver contacts the dispatcher, who makes the call to the shelter. The bus driver continues on the route, and the volunteer is sent to meet the bus. The youth isn’t charged to get on the bus, Hickok said.
Three of the eight youths who have turned to Safe Place so far have done so by getting on a bus. In one case, the driver went “above and beyond,” Hickok said. It was near the end of his route, and he was near Morgan Park. He received the dispatcher’s permission to bring the young person directly to the crisis shelter.
The DTA also offers Safe Places at its operation center in Lincoln Park and its downtown transit center, Hickok said. The transit system’s involvement fits its mission of providing affordable, convenient, efficient and safe service, Hickok said.
“It’s one thing to get on a bus and feel safe, which are, indeed, safe places,” Hickok said. “But it’s a whole other thing to get to the place that they can get the assistance they need. That’s what I think is so great about this partnership.”
A good start
Youths have gone to the Valley Youth Center as well as Renaissance Center, Shykes said. In a couple of cases they went to places that weren’t designated — a school and a convenience store. The youths were able to tell a trusted adult what they needed.
Of the eight, two returned home immediately; the rest stayed at the shelter for varying lengths of time, Shykes said. They ranged in age from 12 to 17.
Eight is a good start, said Hillary Ladig, communications coordinator for National Safe Place in Louisville. Cities of comparable size typically serve four or fewer youth in the first year, she wrote in an email.
Success is measured in individual stories, Shykes said.
One girl who came to the shelter after taking refuge via a Safe Place later told the staff about “some very significant abuse going on in her home.” After social services investigated, the teen and her younger siblings were placed in a foster home.
“In her case, the success was getting her and her siblings someplace where they were not being abused,” Shykes said.
'Needed a little help'
Knauer, who turned 18 on Aug. 20, would have known where to turn even if there hadn’t been an official Safe Place. An articulate young man with neatly trimmed red hair, he was wearing a clean black University of Kentucky hoodie during an interview in a cramped office at Renaissance House, which is across First Street from Sammy’s Pizza.
Knauer doesn’t seem to fit the stereotype of a troubled youth.
What stands out first is his height.
“I’m 6 foot, 3 point 5 inches,” he precisely noted.
He used to play basketball but doesn’t anymore because of arthritis and having suffered a number of concussions. But he has returned to school at Duluth East and would like to be a manager for the basketball team next year, he said. He plans to graduate in June 2015, then attend college and, ultimately, become a teacher and coach.
He has been street-savvy for a long time.
He was asked if his experience on the streets went back to his early teens. “I want to say before that,” Knauer said.
He moved around a lot, being enrolled at one time or another in almost every Duluth school, he said. The exceptions that came to mind were Congdon Park Elementary School and the former Morgan Park Middle School.
Knauer was in foster care early last year, but he left while still 17, he said.
“I was just tired of authority,” he said.
He acknowledged drug use was part of the problem.
“I couldn’t get on my feet right away,” he said. “I just needed a little help.”
Wary of wearing out his welcome on other people’s couches, he eventually turned to Renaissance House. He knew it was part of the Safe Place network, but he also knew about it from previous experiences.
Knauer stayed in the Bethany Crisis Shelter until the day before his 18th birthday, when he was no longer eligible. After trying a few other things, he eventually returned to the Renaissance House, where he now has his own room. He can stay for up to 18 months.
Knauer thinks kids who are willing can get the help they need.
“I think there’s a lot of kids out there who are in need, but they haven’t taken the initiative yet,” he said.
'Toehold' in the schools
Kathy Hermes leads the effort to make sure kids know about Safe Place.
Hermes, who is with LSS youth services, said she’d like every fifth-, eighth- and 11th-grader in Duluth to see a presentation on Safe Place. But she hasn’t gotten to all of them.
“It’s slow going to get a toehold in the schools,” Hermes said.
Part of the issue with some schools, she said, is “a perception that they don’t really need that service that you’re offering them. And I think they really do.”
Hermes spoke to eighth-grade health classes at North Star Academy last week.
In front of one class of about 30 students, she began by asking if they had seen the “Safe Place” sign. They had: at fire stations, on city buses, at the Members Cooperative on 40th Avenue West.
“I saw it on a house,” one student said.
That was a learning opportunity. Safe Place never operates out of residences, Hermes explained.
“If you saw it on a house, that was someone who was possibly trying to trick you,” she said.
She asked about times they or a friend had been lost; times they or a friend had run away. One girl told about a cousin who had disappeared for about three weeks.
They can get help if they need it, Hermes said.
“Sometimes your own home is not a safe place for a while, or maybe for a long time,” she said.
She gave them bracelets and wallet cards containing a text number and a phone number to call for help. If they go to a Safe Place, they should talk to the first employee or staff member they see, she said. A volunteer or LSS staffer will come within a half-hour, she promised.
The youth might be offered a ride to the crisis center but will always have the choice to say no, Hermes said.
Last year, 1,764 youth in Duluth were educated about Safe Place, Ladig wrote.
“The more youth hear about Safe Place and begin to trust that it’s a safe option during a crisis, the more willing they will be to access Safe Place help,” she wrote.
Safe Place in Duluth has about 30 volunteers so far, Shykes said, although she’d like to have a hundred.
“I would love to have them geographically based,” she said. “I would love to be able to have four volunteers on every day, every shift.”
When the program was announced, it was with a goal of having 25 Safe Place locations by the end of 2013. It now has 28, Shykes said, counting all of the buses as one site.
When Hermes talks to students, she asks them for suggestions about possible future locations. Kids in the Hillside neighborhoods often mention the Fourth Street Market, she said. Kids also mention a number of Canal Park locations. She told the North Star Academy students that she hopes some 24-hour businesses will become Safe Place locations.
The program will grow as more locations and more volunteers are added and more youth learn about it, Ladig wrote.
The need exists, Knauer said.
Asked if he has a feel for how many kids are in trouble, he said: “Oh, gosh. There’s always a lot. Sometimes you don’t even notice it. They can hide in plain view, really.”
Where to text, call
Youth who are in trouble can text for help. Text the word “safe” and your current location (address/city/state) to 69866. TXT 4 HELP is a 24-hour text-for-support service offered by National Safe Place.
In Duluth, teens also can call the Bethany Crisis Shelter directly at (218) 626-2726.
Adults who want to learn more about having a Safe Place site or volunteering can call Dawn Shykes of Lutheran Social Service at (218) 626-1901, ext. 14.