Bright Idea: Minnesota’s Pop-Up, One-Stop Shops for Homeless Youth

Young people sitting at a table together

This May, more than 200 young people gathered in St. Paul, MN, to participate in Youth Connect, a “one-stop shop” of resources and activities for youth experiencing homelessness. Weaving between rows of tables staffed by local volunteers and youth workers, the teens and young adults could register for an identification card, get their teeth cleaned or learn about local jobs – all in one afternoon.

Youth Connect is modeled after Project Homeless Connect, an annual event for people of all ages experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis and several other cities across the nation. The main difference between the two events is that Youth Connect is open only to youth aged 24 and under. That enables youth service providers to build relationships with local teens in a comfortable and accessible setting and provide them with exactly the kinds of help they need, says Beth Holger-Ambrose, homeless youth services coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Human Services and one of the event’s co-founders.

“It’s really nice because they can come in and take care of a whole bunch of their needs at one time and learn about services that many of them didn’t know existed,” she says.

How Youth Connect Happens

Youth Connect takes places in four Minnesota locations ranging from urban to suburban. Holger-Ambrose hires teen interns experiencing homelessness to help promote the events. The interns visit schools during lunch, for example, to talk with students in small groups and share how they’ve benefited from Youth Connect in the past.

As a state employee with a youth work background, Holger-Ambrose says she wants Youth Connect to feel like a collaborative process between state government and the local community. She brings together churches, community centers and service organizations for regular planning meetings, and she seeks grants from community foundations to help offset costs. Schools offer buses to and from the event, which is usually held in a church basement, community center or similar venue.

“When you’re thinking about an event like this, I think the most important thing is location,” says Lily Tharoor, a school social worker who receives referrals from St. Paul’s McKinney-Vento liaisons. “You need to make sure you have an event that is reachable from all angles to make sure kids can get to it easily.”

Each event is a little bit different, but all are planned so that they offer a mix of tables where youth can, for example,

  • Get free medical and dental services
  • Get the forms they need to apply for a state identification card and birth certificate
  • Learn about employment and education resources, re-enroll in school and hear from schools about the services they offer homeless students
  • Talk to representatives from street outreach, emergency shelter and housing programs
  • Get a list of local LGBTQ support programs
  • Find out about programs at local parks and libraries

Holger-Ambrose also tries to drive up attendance and interest by including activities that appeal to youth, like arts and crafts and spoken word performances. At the end of the event, youth are encouraged to fill out an exit survey in exchange for a $10 bus card.

Holger-Ambrose says she and her colleagues take very seriously the opinions expressed in the survey: “We have a debriefing meeting, and we really go over the youth feedback and what changes we can make for next time.”

9-5 pm Eastern