A wealth of services under one roof

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March 14, 2011
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// A sweet facelift and a smart new strategy puts YouthLink 
at the vanguard of the fight to end youth homelessness //

A sterling nonprofit with a good track record of getting at-risk kids off the streets, YouthLink, at 41 N. 12th St., has always gotten the job done. But it hasn’t always been pretty.

Housed within a squat, non-descript building overlooking I-394 on the outskirts of the Warehouse District, the Downtown headquarters, where homeless kids aged 15 to 21 can drop in to get stabilized and have basic needs met, isn’t much to look at. But inside, thanks to a sweeping, 10-month renovation that just wrapped up in early March, the place has bloomed into a warm, resource-packed oasis. And the cheery upgrades will soon spread to the building’s exterior, as well.

On March 3, more than 200 people packed the building for the grand opening of YouthLink’s new Youth Opportunity Center (YOC). Name-tagged visitors oohed and aahed over the improvements: a plush-carpeted infant area, ringed by a half-wall of lockers and well stocked with rocking chairs, cribs, and playhouses; a basement art studio and professional gallery space; glass-walled conference rooms and computer labs; a sprawling commons area with comfy couches, packed bookshelves, study cubbies and tutoring stations.

The place had the sunny, progressive vibe of a well-funded magnet school.

“It’s a big change,” said staffer Henry Jimenez, one of the day’s many tour guides. “The idea was to make it all look like a living room.”

And while Ellerbe Becket supplied the architects and MP Johnson Construction provided the labor, it was the YouthLink kids themselves that did most of the designing. The splashy color palette, the furniture, the artwork, the vases of pink tulips, the inspirational quotes stenciled on the wall — all of it, the entire feel of the space, was dictated by the kids that use it.

Having kids involved in the nonprofit’s decision-making is integral to YouthLink’s mission, said Executive Director Heather Huseby. The 50 to 60 kids who drop in every night convene advisory groups to help coach the nonprofit. During the renovation, regular drop-ins toured the site with construction crews to offer feedback. Some even sit in on interviews when YouthLink hires personnel.

“It’s our culture,” Huseby explained.

“That’s a critical part, and so many people forget that. It’s huge,” said Shawna Nelsen, communications director for the Family Housing Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing in the Twin Cities.  

Nelsen, along with several of her coworkers, were impressed by the tour. They noshed on sandwich wraps prepared by YouthLink’s chef program, which trains youth in kitchen skills for both self-sufficiency and job-training purposes.

In the basement, guests lingered in the art lab, where screen-printing kits were set up for T-shirt making. For the inaugural show in the adjacent gallery, Kulture Klub Collaborative, YouthLink’s in-house art department, brought in famed New York street artist Swoon to work with kids on a series of linocut prints based on photographed scenes from the urban streets.

A one-stop hub 
for services

But the Youth Opportunity Center’s biggest accomplishment has nothing to do with aesthetics. The facility is raising eyebrows nationwide with its new model of consolidating services.

Instead of referring kids who drop-in on to other useful public and non-profit agencies — a myriad of places where kids can get free dental work, find employment assistance, legal aid or housing help — YouthLink will gather all of those services under its own roof. Its on-site partners include the workforce development organization HIRED, Health Care for the Homeless, the Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency, the one-on-one education mentoring group Praxis Education Project and many others.

“Instead of youth having to find services throughout Downtown, they’ll be able to come to one spot,” said Huseby.

Combining all this under one roof builds familiarity, so that visitors are more likely to pursue other services they need. That strategy — and the YOC itself — is a key component of Heading Home Hennepin, the city and county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness by 2016.

“It’s a first of its kind in the country,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman (3rd District), who spoke prior to the ribbon cutting. This is not about creating new, costly programs to address the homeless issue, she said. “It’s about reducing duplication.”  

Huseby is so confident the new approach will work wonders, she’s hired economic forecasting firm Anton Economics to design a return-on-investment study on the changes.

Gathering lawyers, tutors, health care professionals, case workers, therapists, job coaches and mental health experts under one roof, Dorfman added, is huge in breaking the destructive lifestyle patterns that can follow homeless youth into adulthood.

Between 550 and 650 youth are on the street on any given night, Huseby said.

“If we don’t stop this before they get to 21, we know what’s going to happen,” she said. “They’re going to be long-term homeless, they’re going to be incarcerated or they’re going to be dead.”