By PATRICIA KRAHNKE, guest columnist
Over the past six months, I have seen firsthand how desperate Brown County is for at-risk student housing solutions, both temporary and long term. An experience over the past two weeks has brought this problem into sharp focus, in all its sad and frustrating details. Let me tell you a story:
A student — let’s call her Amy — contacted me the only way she knew how, through a message on Facebook. While in town driving, her mother hit Amy, then abandoned her in town. Amy’s message to me was, “I don’t know where to go, and I don’t know what to do.” The child was terrified.
I had known Amy’s mother was verbally abusive, so it was not a stretch to believe Amy’s assertions. During the school year, I had seen the texts from her mother, filled with profanity and threats.
I also know Amy. I know her dreams and goals and that she is trying as hard as she can in an impossible situation to take the right steps toward making her dreams reality. She works part time to raise money to attend a summer program that is extremely important to her, but Amy’s mother insists that Amy give her the money she makes. (This happens frequently in many of our county families.)
I also knew that her mother was involved with drugs and that the family was one of so many that are difficult to make sense of, a guessing game of “someone’s in jail — I think; this child’s father is that guy — I think; the other child’s father is long gone — I think,” and so on.
Over the past six months, I and others on the Homeless Teen Task Force have actively sought education about at-risk teen support options and processes offered by our community’s outstanding resource directors. This is the process that was put into play to help Amy.
Here’s what has become evident: Although exhausting to manage, the system has basically worked — so far. But something was missing: Housing.
Where does this child go? Who oversees her well-being? Who ensures that she eats healthfully and regularly — or at all?
A hotel that is a member of the task force put Amy up for a few nights and fed her so she would be safe while her case was investigated. Many other incredible people visited her and played a part in keeping her safe and sound. But as well as that worked this time, we have decided it is asking too much for hotel staff to supervise her and keep track of her comings and goings. But where else might she have gone?
Over the past year, it has become clear to me the great number of our students who are “on the bubble,” whose families are neglectful, dangerous and frightening to them. These children either seek me out to tell me, hoping I will have an answer for what they should do, or they have told their teachers and the teachers tell me.
The Department of Child Services is always the first call teachers make, but they know about the Homeless Teen Task Force and believe that we will know how to proceed for everything else. The agencies are tremendous for being overburdened and understaffed, but housing remains a major concern.
Couch surfing isn’t an option, although we know it takes place often in our county. This is a problem for everyone involved. The family that a teen is running away from may be dangerous, putting families who let the child stay with them at risk of harm to themselves. Families that allow children to stay in their homes may be accused of kidnapping, abuse or worse. Conversely, a child may feel safe hiding at a friend’s home because they think they know the family, when in reality that family may be placing the child in danger of sexual predation, violence and drugs.
Families or adults wishing to support at-risk children with temporary or long-term housing are well-advised to be aware of these risks. Information sessions and training programs are available to anyone interested in learning more about how they can legally and safely take in a teen, for a night, a few days or longer.
Individuals who participate in these programs also become part of Brown County’s strengthening network of resources, agencies, schools, churches and concerned citizens that support homeless and at-risk children.
Temporary, emergency housing is needed desperately to help students like Amy. We need to give the family cooling-off time and allow our agencies to conduct due diligence in support of the interests of the child. Long-term, safe, stable housing solutions are required when the student cannot go back to the home for the foreseeable future.
Interested in learning more about how you might be able to house a homeless teen? Please attend our public information session Tuesday, June 14, 6 p.m. at Creekside Retreat, across from Salt Creek Golf Course.
Questions? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-219-6001.
What: Information session about housing homeless teens
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 14
Where: Creekside Retreat, across from Salt Creek Golf Course
Patricia Krahnke is a substitute teacher and volunteer student mentor.