Sacramento's Wind Youth Services forced to close
Government shutdown causes homeless-youth center to end its drop-in program
Jessie Mills was 14 the last time she saw her father. It’s not her warmest memory.
Now 20 and working at local homeless-youth-service provider Wind Youth Services, Mills knows what it’s like to be an abandoned child trying to make it on unfamiliar streets. Six years ago, her dad dropped her off in Sacramento, a city she didn’t know, and vanished.
“I didn’t choose to be homeless. I was just left out here,” she told county supervisors at a meeting last week. “I’m not from Sacramento.”
Now, she’s forever part of its troubled legacy.
After Friday, November 15, Wind Youth Services will close its drop-in center, or what the nonprofit describes as “the heart” of its operation. Mills’ job is one of three that will be affected. Meanwhile, the 45 to 60 homeless minors who visit the center each day for meals, showers, vaccinations and casework will have no place else to go.
Blame the government.
Because of the federal shutdown that recently ended, Wind doesn’t know whether its three-year $540,000 federal grant to operate the center has been renewed. The last grant expired in September 2012, while other state and federal funding sources have dried up.
“I know no one wants us to do this, but we’ve decided to close the center temporarily as we look for other options,” Wind executive director Sher Barber told SN&R.
How long the center will remain dark is uncertain.
Barber said her board is frantically reaching out to other partners in the hopes of cobbling together the roughly $150,000 needed to run the center for a year. She plans to submit a funding proposal to Sacramento Steps Forward, which awards continuum of care grants, in the coming weeks, and has been on the phone with Congresswoman Doris Matsui’s office about the federal grant. But no word yet.
The money would buy 12,000 meals a year and keep caseworkers, counselors and a public-health nurse on hand.
“It’s a huge asset,” Barber said of the center. “We are the only service provider in this area [for homeless youth].”
Homeless youth are the least-served yet most in-need population, experts say. And their numbers are growing.
Between 2005 and 2012, the number of homeless students at Sacramento County schools shot up a staggering 117 percent, according to the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. There are nearly 12,000 such students estimated to be sleeping in cars, motels, on couches or places unknown.
Most of them come from the Sacramento City and Twin Rivers unified school districts, said Addie Ellis, youth-policy initiative director at homelessness nonprofit Sacramento Steps Forward, and most are younger than 13.
The stories of how they came to be homeless are often crushing.
Few run away; most are cast out. The California Youth Crisis Line, a state-mandated hotline for young people, receives hundreds of calls a year from parents and guardians contemplating such decisions. Many say they’re overwhelmed by children who are out of control or are unable to get help with special needs.
“Oft times … they’re throwaway kids,” Ellis said.
Last year, Wind tallied more than 4,200 calls at its crisis line and counseled roughly 200 youth, many of whom had been kicked out or were nearing nuclear-family blowouts, Barber said. Sometimes, those kids end up at Wind’s emergency overnight shelter in north Sacramento, which has a dozen beds covering six counties.
California Coalition for Youth executive director Paul A. Curtis said only 20 of the 58 counties in California have services for unaccompanied homeless youth. Sacramento is one of them, but it only has Wind.
“There’s a huge need that’s not being met,” Curtis told supervisors last week while accepting a resolution commemorating runaway and homeless youth alongside Mills and Ellis.
Unaccompanied homeless youth prefer places like Wind because they can get services without being alerted to the foster-care system.
Stays at the emergency shelter are voluntary, topping out at 21 days, while caseworkers prepare stabilization plans that look at reconnecting youths with family members, alternative guardians or stable environments. Nearly 3,000 homeless youths take advantage of these services a year.
Mills was one of those kids.
“Putting all my hope in complete strangers is not easy for us homeless youth to do,” she said. “I made the choice to be a better person.”
She’s now studying massage therapy and wondering how the center’s closure will affect her stability.
Wind plans to hand out brown-bag lunches and hygiene kits during the center’s indefinite closure, but the homeless-youth service provider can’t do it alone. And, without its center, it won’t.