Reaching out on Hennepin

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August 28, 2006 // UPDATED 2:09 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

StreetWorks outreach workers connect homeless teens with key resources

On a recent Thursday evening, Jose Acuna and Shannon Lange (aka Blowtorch) headed for Hennepin Avenue outfitted with green backpacks stocked with essentials for life on the streets.

Acuna, 43, and Blowtorch, 30, work for YouthLink, an organization on the edge of Downtown that serves homeless and at-risk teens through a variety of programs. Their outreach work is coordinated by StreetWorks, a South Minneapolis-based organization that collaborates with several Twin Cities agencies serving youth.

It didn’t take long for a handful of teenagers to approach Acuna and Blowtorch after they left YouthLink, a drop-in center for youth on the edge of Downtown. Near Block E in the heart of the Hennepin Avenue Entertainment District, a couple of teens approached the outreach workers. Some asked for condoms. Others just stopped to chat and catch up. As Blowtorch nonchalantly handed out safe-sex kits and candy, she asked the teens if they had heard of YouthLink and passed along information about the drop-in center.

Blowtorch and Acuna do the kind of work members of the City-County Commission on Ending Homelessness say is critical to their goal of ending homelessness in 10 years.

In their recent report, the commission recommended increasing the number of outreach workers in the Twin Cities, particularly in the suburbs, and the number of hours they work on the streets. Currently, StreetWorks outreach teams work from about noon to midnight. The commission would like to see outreach teams work 24 hours a day, seven days a week — similar to outreach teams in Philadelphia that have contributed to a 50 percent drop in homelessness, according to the commission’s report.

The report also calls for the creation of a Hennepin County Outreach Collaborative to develop, track and evaluate an effective 24/7-outreach system that responds to all noncriminal calls involving people experiencing homelessness.

Additionally, the commission recommends that cities in Hennepin County examine local ordinances to ensure that they are not criminalizing homelessness.

StreetWorks Collaborative Director Sarah Taylor-Nanista, served on a commission task force devoted to addressing issues facing youth experiencing homelessness. She said the commission adopted all of the task force’s recommendations, including a request to add 60 new shelter beds for homeless youth as a temporary solution until youth can be connected with permanent housing.

Youth homelessness, compared to adult homelessness, is sometimes harder to track, she said. A lot of youth “couch surf” from home to home, she said, so the problem isn’t as obvious.

‘A positive presence’

In an unassuming, nonjudgmental way, the StreetWorks outreach workers connect teens with resources that can help get them off the streets. They also help them survive by handing out basic essentials most of us take for granted — underwear, socks, toiletries and T-shirts.

To many of the teens hanging out around Block E, Blowtorch and Acuna have become familiar faces, their green backpacks a sign of relief.

“We try to be a positive presence on the streets,” said Acuna, who sported a T-shirt with the likeness of Che Guevara, one of the leaders of the Cuban revolution.

Acuna and Blowtorch do most of their outreach work on Hennepin, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral every Monday for the church’s free supper and in North Minneapolis. They try to target young people between the ages of 15 and 21.

In most cases, they hang back, waiting for youth to approach them for help.

“The green bag is a great way to start a conversation,” Acuna said. “Our approach is never assuming. It’s always respectful.”

The outreach workers serve a wide variety of teens. Some have jobs and go to school. Others just got released from the juvenile justice system, left the foster care system or have mental illnesses.

Many homeless teens are gay, lesbian or transgender and have been ostracized by their families.

One unifying element among them, however, is their reluctance to identify themselves as homeless, said Josephine Pufpaff, a program services director for YouthLink. “We have to help them accept their reality,” she said.

Pufpaff also noted that there’s a significant racial disparity among homeless youth. About 83 percent of the youth served by YouthLink are of color.

While no one is suggesting there’s an easy antidote to youth homelessness, Acuna, a native of Costa Rica who has been doing outreach work in Minneapolis for more than a decade, and Blowtorch, an outreach worker for the past two decades, had several suggestions when asked what can be done to end youth homelessness.

Acuna said he’d like to see families take more responsibility for their children, more resources for youth with mental illnesses and more supportive housing. Blowtorch, meanwhile, said she’d like to see community leaders create more opportunities for youth so they can lead more stable lives. Blowtorch, a member of the local band All the Pretty Horses, knows firsthand how hard it can be. She was homeless from age 15-18.

“I’m pretty blunt with the youth,” she said.

While the work can be daunting, Blowtorch and Acuna have their share of inspirational stories to tell about formerly homeless youth who have overcome their problems.

“For us, a successful story is a youth addressing their mental illness, a youth going to school,” Acuna said. “It’s worth it if we help one youth. For me, it’s worth it.”

Sarah McKenzie can be reached at smckenzie@mnpubs.com and 436-4371.