Healthy You Healthy Hennepin

Ashlee next to her motel

To Have a Home

March 2016

It’s approaching midnight when Ashlee lets herself into her motel room. She’s just finished the late shift at her minimum wage, fast-food job that’s a half-hour’s drive away. She’ll work the opening shift tomorrow, so it’s straight to bed.

First homeless at 16, Ashlee’s life has been precarious since birth. Now 21, she has, for the first time in a long while, managed to get and keep a job. Six months into it, she’s saved and now earns just enough to pay for a no-frills motel room on the fringe of the Twin Cities and a junker car that gets her to and from work more quickly than buses. It’s not a permanent plan, but it’s progress.

“I work, I sleep, and I stay out of trouble. That’s it,” she says. “I don’t use drugs anymore and I’m hoping to get my court records expunged. I did a lot of stupid things when I was younger. I’m working to get free from all that.”

Ashlee’s mother is an addict and has been in and out of jail for as long as she can remember. Her father renounced his role, so it fell to her grandmother to try to raise her. But adolescent Ashlee’s drug use, arrests, and difficult behavior took their toll. Grandma kicked her out at 16. She returned at 18, just long enough to graduate high school, but the two fell out again soon after. “I was more than she could take,” Ashlee admits. “We talk now by phone sometimes. Last night she told me, ‘I can’t believe you’ve held a job for six months.’”

They’ve been abandoned. Rejected. Abused. Neglected. Their stories vary, but fractured families and harsh circumstances are common to all. And so they look for shelter each night and try to build normal lives each day.



During the day, many of these young people are drawn to the library. “The library is a community gathering place unlike any place else,” notes Sara Zettervall, a Hennepin County librarian who’s also involved in the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board’s Community Connections program. “At all 41 Hennepin County Library locations, everyone’s accepted so long as they behave appropriately. We’re an open source of health information and educational resources for kids and adults who otherwise don’t have access. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they live.” The downtown Minneapolis Central Library sees up to 400 homeless visitors of all ages on any given day.

But every night, it’s the same routine. Get in line or online soon enough and you might get a bed at a shelter. Youth shelter beds fill fast, though, leaving teens to fend for themselves. Next morning, everyone’s back on the street.

“These teens are some of the most resilient and admirable people you’ll ever meet. But they need more than a cot at night,” says Marney Thomas, who works to connect youth to self-sufficiency resources at Youthlink. “They need to see a pathway out of their current situation. And they need to learn to build trusting relationships with adults, because that’s something many of them have never had.”

Staff at YouthLink
Inside of YouthLink
Outside of YouthLink



YouthLink is a drop-in center for 16-23 year-olds that provides hot meals, showers, hygiene supplies and a place for the teens to do their laundry. There’s also a Hennepin County Healthcare for the Homeless clinic there that provides essential health care support. Teens also can access computers and phones, utilize lockers to store possessions, and use the building’s address to get mail.

YouthLink also hosts the Youth Opportunity Center where health and social service agencies provide a wide range of opportunities and resources to help kids take care of themselves and make plans for their futures.

“I wouldn’t have this job without them,” Ashlee says. “They helped me prepare for my job interview. It’s where I got the clothes to wear to the interview. And without my case manager’s name as my reference, I wouldn’t have even gotten the interview.”

These days, Ashlee still stops at YouthLink to check for mail, but with her job during the day and a motel room to sleep in at night, she’s there less often. She misses her daily interactions with the staff and other clients, and wishes there were more supportive transitional housing options available.

YouthLink does provide support services at Archdale, Saint Barnabas and Nicollet Square, three local apartment buildings for youth transitioning out of homelessness. These are places where at-risk young adults can practice self-sufficiency with appropriate guidance and oversight. All of them have waiting lists, but additional facilities are in the works.

In partnership with Project for Pride in Living (PPL), Youthlink hopes to open a new 46 bed transitional apartment building at its 12th Street and Chestnut Avenue site by late 2017. On a similar timeline, Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative aims to open a new 39-studio-apartment building in Edina.

There still will be too few transitional housing options for youth. But it’s progress. As Thomas notes, “It’s a matter of basic dignity. Everyone needs a place to call home.”


By: Bill Belknap

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