Hope and Opportunity for Homeless Youth at Nicollet Square
The nightly count of homeless youth has increased 46 percent since 2006 in Minnesota, while the amount of available beds at shelters has stayed the same.
Over the holidays, the first three tenants moved into Nicollet Square, an innovative new housing project for homeless youth in Kingfield. By the end of January, all 42 studio apartments should be occupied at the project, which combines social services, affordable housing and employment assistance for young people struggling with homelessness or aging out of foster care.
"It's more than a cheap place to live," said Josephine Pufpaff of YouthLink, the project's social services provider. "It's an opportunity to set yourself up so you're more successful when you leave."
Nicollet Square aims to provide a number of necessary services under one ceiling.
Since moving can be a huge change in a young person's life—especially for those who have experienced trauma or homelessness—there is a full-time adviser on site to "help make that transition less dramatic, and more about beginnings," Pufpaff said. A counselor will also be on staff.
There's no time limit for how long youth—who undergo a background check—can live at Nicollet Square. As long as the young people, aged 16-21, are good community members, they might even be allowed to stay on after they turn 21. But Puffpaff said housing for young people is typically focused on providing for the short-term.
HIRED's Carol Aharoni said her organization will work with Nicollet Square youth to help them pay their rent, which is $205 a month.
The organization will help youth develop interviewing and networking skills to get immediate employment, as well as credentials needed to develop long-term careers. In some cases HIRED may subsidize employment experiences for youth who have not had successful employment before by paying for the youth's salary in exchange for mentoring support from the business, Aharoni said.
Aharoni said that while HIRED has done much work in schools, prisons and juvenile detention facilities, Nicollet Square will be a new kind of effort based in a more holistic approach to providing necessary social services and support.
The project is an effort to meet some of the increased demand for housing and social services that came with the economic downturn. The nightly count of homeless youth has increased 46 percent since 2006 in Minnesota, while the amount of available beds at shelters has remained flat, according to an October report by the Wilder Foundation. There's also been a greater demand for other social services that the project will provide, like job-skills assistance.
The idea for Nicollet Square sprang from a task force made up of members of Plymouth Congregational Church and Westminster Presbyterian Church. Congregation members wanted to use funds raised in celebration of the churches' sesquicentennials to create 150 units of housing, according to Lee Bond of the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation. The two churches partnered with PCNF, who bought the property and brought in YouthLink and HIRED.
The $9.2 million cost of Nicollet Square has been covered by the churches, federal funds, city funds and private sources. The project was one of nine in the state that received cash through a program created by the federal stimulus bill last year.
The project building contains 5,000 square feet of space dedicated to community programs and events, and an equal amount for retail space—it will accommodate up to three businesses on-site, although there hasn't yet been a decision on which businesses will occupy the spaces. Since the focus of Nicollet Square will be on creating employment opportunities for the youth, the hope is that the businesses spaces would provide some opportunities for youth employment.
Martin Urzua manages Los Gallos, a money-transfer store kitty corner from Nicollet Square, said he might consider hiring some of the youth if they had good attitudes. While he has some concerns, he thinks that if the youth are in the program, it will be an opportunity for them to change their lives. "Everybody deserves to have an extra chance," Urzua said through a translator.
Gail Mollner, co-owner of Blackbird Café down the street, said she would also be open to hiring youth if she needed more workers. She said she's not concerned with safety issues that have been expressed by a few people.
"We all live in a community," she said. "We need to help folks that need help."