Bellefaire JCB: Connecting Runaway & Homeless Teens With Stability

By: Luke Drotar

     Did you know that if a teen boards a RTA bus & tells the driver that he or she needs help that the driver would call a teen outreach agency?  One of the two that the driver would call, based on the bus’s location, is Bellefaire JCB’s Homeless Youth Program.  Their 24-hour hotline (216-570-8010) receives an average of one to four calls every day.  Anyone is welcome to call: teens, parents, police officers, etc.  The Homeless Youth Program also has Facebook & MySpace accounts set up for ease of contact.

     When a teen contacts the Homeless Youth Program, workers determine his or her immediate needs.  Each teen receives a survival kit that includes a calling card, a hygiene kit, a fleece blanket (donated by another teen organization), and a letter of support written by a teen to let them know that other teens care.  Runaway or homeless teens face unique challenges and dangers posed by their circumstance.  The most dangerous time for a youth who runs away is within 72 hours of leaving home; by that point, a teen is likely to have been solicited for sex.

     “Part of the training we do is helping teens get out of tough situations,” said Karen McHenry, LISW-S, LCDC, the program’s director.  “Teenage homelessness is a real problem—a complicated issue that is not fully understood by the general public.  Teens aren’t noticed unless they create problems; and unfortunately homeless or runaway youth are often invisible.”

     Another way that Bellefaire JCB is making its presence known to youth is through their Street Outreach Program.  On Thursdays & Fridays, Bellefaire JCB staff is available from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at libraries, coffee shops & teen friendly spots on the near west side of Cleveland.  Then (on Thursdays & Fridays) from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. they offer a drop-in center at St. Paul’s Church at 4427 Franklin Blvd.  And then after that (on Thursdays & Fridays) they’re back at the teen-friendly spots on the near west side from 9 p.m. until 10 p.m.

      The Bellefaire JCB’s Youth & Street Outreach Programs provide assessment, linkage and referral to a safe place for homeless youth.  “We see teens who have been living outside or couch surfing for months,” said McHenry.  “We do get a lot of calls from teens who have aged out of the system [ages 18-24], and we have a wealth of resources that we provide for that population.”

     “If the youth is under age eighteen, he/she can receive housing in a host home.  With their legal guardian’s consent, the child is placed in one of many families in our foster family network who are trained to take these youth.  We try to find a family that might geographically fit with where the child is going to school or near his or her identified support systems.”

      As reported in the last issue of the Cleveland Street Chronicle in the article “Cleveland Youth Testify to Human Rights Violations”, schools aren’t remembered enough as being in some cases a teenager’s only regular source of meals, among other things.  Karen adds, “School is a very important place for these teens because it’s safe and consistent.  They also aspire to have a profession and go to college, something most of them are able to achieve.”

     “We engage teens and help them focus on their strengths and achieve their goals.  All of our teens are resilient and talented.  For example, one of our teens is a puppeteer, and one plays the viola.  These are little outlets they’ve built to survive.”

Editor’s Note: If you’d like to learn more about the work of Bellefaire JCB’s Homeless Youth & Street Outreach Programs please visit their website <http://www.bellefairejcb.org/homeless-youth-program>.

 Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and The Street Chronicle published Sept. 2011 Cleveland, Ohio