Countless children look forward to the end of a school day when they can come home to a snack, afternoon cartoons and a family. Yet the reality in Dane County is a growing number of children have neither a home nor a parent to go home to.
The number of unaccompanied homeless youths in Dane County continues to increase, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s yearly comparison report.
Advocates said the actual count is much higher than the report’s identified 29 in foster homes last year.
“It’s very difficult to identify unaccompanied youths,” said Tyler Schueffner, street outreach specialist for Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin, in an email to The Badger Herald. “Unaccompanied youths tend to avoid service providers … largely because they are aware that few useful resources exist.”
Schueffner described his frustration at what little he can offer unaccompanied youth. He said although he can help them find employment training, obtain health needs and get into counseling, “In all honesty, most kids are looking for accessible shelter resources.”
Jani Koester is a nationally recognized resource teacher for homeless students in the Madison Metropolitan School District and advocates for opening homeless shelters specifically for such youths.
“One of the barriers to access school is [not] being somewhere consistently,” Koester said. “Children under 17 who don’t have adult guardians can’t access any homeless shelters in Dane County and end up on the streets, in friends’ houses or on couches because they have nowhere else to go.”
Homeless unaccompanied minors are not allowed to enroll in shelters by state law. Consequently, it does not take long for a homeless teen to get pulled away from school after leaving family homes.
Being alone on the streets can also make these children vulnerable to exploitation. A YSOSW report estimated one in three youths is approached for sex in exchange for money, food, shelter or drugs within 48 hours of being homeless.
“Most of these clients were put up in cheap hotels, photographed or videotaped nude or engaging in sexual acts, abused sexually, emotionally and physically,” Schueffner added. “The cards are overwhelmingly stacked against these kids, … and around every corner lurks another pit for them to fall into.”
University of Wisconsin professor Peter Miller studies education in the context of homelessness and said the lack of shelter goes beyond a lack of space and food. He said children who are sheltered receive little advocacy, which he said can be more important than just a roof over their heads.
Briarpatch is one of YSOSW’s core programs dedicated to helping adolescents with abuse, homelessness and other difficulties in Dane County.
Casey Behrend, the program’s executive director, said having a youth-specific shelter in the county would expand the scope of needs the county could meet.
“Having a shelter in Dane County would likely bring us into contact with unaccompanied youths we are not currently serving, thus allowing us to advocate for and help meet the needs of a larger number of youths,” Behrend said.
The gap in services for unaccompanied youths has caught the attention of state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, who recently proposed opening emergency shelters for homeless children in Madison.
To many, however, that is only the first step to solving a deeper issue of well-being and public safety. Mayor Paul Soglin said permanent housing – not shelter – should be the priority.
“An effective framework is having intake and matching them with permanent housing,” Soglin said. “Shelter is not a solution to the problem of the homeless. Permanent housing is. There’s a difference between shelters and having a home.”
While providing homes to unaccompanied homeless youths is still far from a reality, for Schueffner, the next best thing for these children is building a consistent and healthy relationship with an adult.
“The long-term costs of how we ‘do business’ in regards to homeless youths is too steep to do nothing or allow for the status quo,” he said. “These individuals can be active and contributing members of society, … but society must do its part to serve them.”