Deborah Loon is the Executive Director of Avenues for Homeless Youth. She has been at Avenues since 2008, when she was brought in to serve as Interim Executive Director during an organizational transition. Inspired by the youth and staff at Avenues, she agreed to stay on as Executive Director and has led the organization through significant growth. Today, Avenues supports more than 300 youth experiencing homelessness every year in Minnesota.
Thank you so much for speaking with us Deb! Can you tell us a bit about how the organization started?
Thank you for interviewing us! Avenues started in December 1994 by a young person who recognized the shortage of shelter and services specifically designed for youth. Since then, we’ve been laser-focused on supporting homeless youth with shelter, short-term housing and intensive services across the Twin Cities.
What types of shelters and housing do you provide?
We offer several different models in the Twin Cities and today have six programs supporting over 300 youth every year. Two programs are our congregate youth shelters: Brooklyn Avenues (located in Brooklyn Park, a suburb of Minneapolis) and Minneapolis Avenues (located in North Minneapolis). Minneapolis Avenues is our oldest program and supports 21 youth at a time, while Brooklyn Avenues just opened 2 years ago and supports 12 youth at a time. We were able to design the Brooklyn Avenues building to be gender-neutral and, therefore, very comfortable and supportive of all youth, including those who identify as LGBTQ. Every young person has a small private bedroom and the bathrooms provide the highest level of privacy.
Picture above: Left is of Minneapolis Avenues and Right is of Brooklyn Avenues.
I understand that Avenues offers different programs, in addition to the shelters it provides?
Yes, we do! While all of our programs provide competent services to youth who identify as LGBTQ, we have two programs specifically for LGBTQ youth — the GLBT Host Home Program and the ConneQT Host Home Program (the QT stands for queer and trans.) The GLBT Host Home Program started 20 years ago after a community needs assessment found that a large amount of homeless youth identified as LGBTQ. It is nationally-known and is truly volunteer-based and community-driven. Through it, members of the community open their homes to provide short-term housing and basic needs to LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.
Our host home model essentially turns foster care on its head, in that the process of matching youth with host homes is youth-driven. It’s really important that youth have the opportunity to engage in self-determination, to begin making decisions about next steps for their lives. When a youth is interested in living in a host home, we let the youth read the prospective hosts’ files and decide who they would like to meet. Youth especially appreciate the letter hosts have written explaining why they are interested in being a host. A “meet and greet” is scheduled, and after two or three meetings, a match gets made.
The youth gets support from our Youth Engagement Specialist before, during and after their stay in the host home, while the hosts get support from our Program Manager. The hosting process can be both “messy and magical.” Often, a lasting relationship builds between hosts and youth. At its very basic level, though, the host home model is about allowing youth to stop worrying about meeting their basic needs and start focusing on their future. The average stay in this program is about 12 months.
Our ConneQT Host Home Program was started just a year ago to provide shelter-like housing for queer and trans youth in volunteer host homes. It is modeled after the GLBT Host Home Program, but is designed for much shorter stays (up to 3 months). Everything else is the same – host screening and training, the matching process, the level of support by our staff. We started this program to broaden our pool of hosts and create more short-term housing options for LGBTQ youth. We plan on evaluating the impact of the program soon!
Avenues for Young Families is another brand new program we offer. In this program, we work with landlords willing to lease apartments to homeless young families. We are able to provide temporary rent subsidies through a grant from HUD, along with a lot of support for the whole family. This program is targeted at the 35% of homeless youth age 24 and younger who have children*. We are able to keep these families together, teach parenting skills, connect the youth with education and training programs that will lead to living wage jobs, help them enroll their children in child care, and provide many more supports.
Wow, Avenues offers so many necessary programs, it’s incredible. Can you tell me more about the support Avenues gives to the youth?
Because of the complexity of needs and barriers our youth have faced, we have worked very hard to deepen the supports we provide. Shelter and basic needs provide the foundation on which real work and real change can happen! Our team of Youth Engagement Specialists (often called Case Managers) are the main support and advocates for youth. They guide goal-setting, coordinate services and support youth through this transitional time. Our Health and Wellness Team includes mental health therapists and a nurse to do assessments, provide consultations and make referrals. The Education and Career Specialist works with youth on their goals for education, training and employment, while our After-Care and Independent Living Skills Specialist helps youth prepare for more independent living and stay stable after they have moved out. We also provide Family Strengthening support to improve family relationships for youth with that goal.
How will the money raised from Pull for Pride Minneapolis be used?
It really depends on the donor preference. Donors can prescribe which program they want to help fund, or can allow it to support all of our programs.
(Note: We reached out to Mark Schneider of The Movement Minneapolis and he stated that he would like to support the entire organization and all of their programs.)
How can youth contact Avenues to reach out for help?
Youth may call one of our programs directly or connect with us via email or social media. Or they connect with us through school counselors, librarians, other caring adults.
The newest way youth can find us is through a new app called YSNMN. The app is a youth services network in the Twin Cities, where youth can connect with Avenues and other shelters, and find out what other services are out there for them. Lots of youth are connecting through this app. They can subscribe to receive texts on which shelters have available beds.
What a great app. Do you have an example an individual who has had a positively influence through Avenues?
We have a youth who had been in 33 out-of-home placements. When she came to us at age 17, she was pretty angry with the world, understandably. 33 times she had been rejected. She yelled at any staff that tried to engage with her. We knew we had to be patient and gave her all the time, space and resources she needed. Our staff were great. She eventually came around, after we demonstrated we weren’t going to give up on her and that we found her worthy. She stayed at Avenues through her 18th birthday, for over a year. Avenues was the longest home she had ever had. Now she recognizes that she can make her own choices, she can determine her future. She has re-engaged with school, and is working 2 jobs while in school. In spite of the trauma and hardship she experienced throughout her life, she was resilient. Magic can happen.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Deb! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We at Avenues recognize the tremendous opportunity we have to walk with young people who have been homeless at a critical time in their lives. They are young and have experienced a lot of trauma, yet are very resilient. When they get to a place where they feel stable and safer, where they don’t have to worry about where they’ll sleep and find food, then they can start thinking about their future. We get to watch this transition from crisis and uncertainty to having HOPE…from surviving to thriving. It’s a real privilege to be part of their journey.
If you are interested in getting involved with Avenues for Homeless Youth in Minneapolis, feel free to contact Avenues’ Community Engagement Manager at 612-844-2005.
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*Source: Wilder Research. Homelessness in Minnesota; Findings from the 2015 Statewide Study. November 2016