SHERIDAN — As of January 2018, there are an estimated 639 homeless youth in Wyoming on any given day, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The U.S. Department of Education reported that about 1,625 students experienced homelessness within the 2016-2017 school year. Wyoming has one of the lowest populations of homeless youth in the U.S., slightly above North Dakota.
Still, that trend may not be here to last. Homelessness is underreported across the U.S. and agencies are reporting different rates of homelessness among children, teens and young adults. Wyoming saw more than a 14% increase in the percentage of homeless students in kindergarten through 12th grade from 2014-2015 to 2016-2017 to nearly 2,000 students, according to the National Center for Homeless Education.
This holiday season, Volunteers of America Northern Rockies is asking the public to consider giving to the VOANR Independent Living program and support teens and young adults who are transitioning out of foster care, homelessness or the juvenile justice system.
Independent Living coordinator Melinda Abbott said the number of homeless youth in Sheridan County has been growing annually. Every year, VOANR supports a few high-schoolers with housing through graduation.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize that that’s out there,” Abbott said. “Because Volunteers of America has really stepped up and just tried to ensure any homeless youth, particularly high-schoolers, are housed.”
Of the 125 youth who came through Independent Living last year, about one-third were homeless when they started, Abbott said. The total number of youth the program is serving has also increased — doubled from the last three years. Homeless youth are financially supported solely through individual donations and foundations to VOANR — the funding isn’t there to catch up to a total increase in youth served, she said.
Chief development officer Bob Mazgaj said there is a misconception that Independent Living is supported by substantial government funding. For more than half of youth in the program, VOANR locates individuals or foundations to fund their time in the program.
Abbott said she currently operates at a budgeted $1,000 per youth for a three to six month period but would like to see it increase to $1,500 per youth. The cost per youth in the program includes Abbott’s time for mentorship, guidance and life skills classes, transitional housing apartments and developing sustainable skills for accomplishing life goals after the program, she said.
“There a lot of time invested above and beyond just trying to find them a roof over their head,” Mazgaj said.
Mazgaj said a limited budget means the program can’t grow and expand as he would like. If there continues to be an increase in youth who need support services and not enough funding to accommodate the need, VOANR could be required to limit the number of people admitted to the program, he said.
Independent Living has an 83% success rate as of last year, Abbott said. Some of the program’s success can be attributed to Sheridan’s supportive atmosphere, which encourages many youth to remain in the community afterward, she said.
Classes and training include financing, budgeting and leadership skills, assistance with financial aid and college applications, grocery shopping, nutrition, connecting to community resources and ordering vital records. Some people who come into the program after experiencing homelessness might not have the necessary identification documents to obtain housing or employment, Abbott said.
Physical and mental health, spiritual support and understanding healthy relationships are life skills that can help prevent cycles of domestic violence and improve overall well-being, she said.
Financial skills are critical to breaking a generational cycle of poverty, Abbott said. Teaching youth early in life how to save beyond living paycheck to paycheck can help prevent chronic homelessness. Leadership classes empower youth with skills to be leaders in their workplace, even if they’re low in the chain of command, she said.
Youth have the chance to use some of their new skills in action for an annual Christmas dinner. VOANR provides funding for groceries and each program participant selects a recipe, Abbott said. It’s an opportunity to practice planning ahead, following directions and cooking but more importantly, it’s a way to connect with others, she said.
“You can teach banking and budgeting until you’re blue in the face,” Abbott said. “But if you don’t have somewhere to go for Thanksgiving or Christmas, or somebody to call you and wish you a Happy Birthday, none of that other stuff matters.”
Mazgaj said many people fail to appreciate the value of a supportive family. He recalled speaking with one youth who said in Independent Living, she felt as though someone cared about her for the first time in her life. It takes an entire community to effectively support youth who have experienced significant life challenges, Abbott said.
“This time of the year, being homeless, just the conditions outside…we’re talking about maybe even saving a life, not just changing it,” Mazgaj said.
Abbott said she will never forget responding to a call about a pregnant girl sleeping alone on a bench outside. The VOANR prioritizes trying to catch young people in crisis situations early on, she said.