- Associated Press - Sunday, February 8, 2015

MISHAWAKA, Ind. (AP) - Brady August stands in the food court of the University Park Mall watching as hurried shoppers rush past him.

It’s a couple of weeks before Christmas, but it’s a typical Wednesday evening for August. He’s out looking for young people who need help.

As the Street Outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Youth Service Bureau of St. Joseph County, August and his team work to find young people who are homeless and at-risk. They had to cut back on their efforts after losing funding four years ago. But after recently winning the money back, they are back out, looking for people to help. Still, the effort is becoming harder every year.

Wearing a YSB-yellow shirt, August stands next to a table covered with large purple script reading: “Helping young people in need.” He will approach groups of young people, striking up conversations.

“I can’t believe you’re still out here!” a young woman shouts as she approaches August from down the mall corridor.

He laughs. “Of course I am,” he says and chats with her about how she has been.

Street Outreach seeks anyone between the ages of about 13 and 24 who faces neglect, homelessness or street or family violence, as well as young mothers, the South Bend Tribune reported (https://bit.ly/1HL48w8 ).

Having worked with the program since its creation about 11 years ago, August, now 60, knows not to judge by appearances.

He remembers once at the mall when three teenage girls dressed in nice clothing were walking toward him. He assumed they weren’t his target audience.

But he chatted with the girls anyway, making them aware of the Youth Service Bureau and handing them a flier with contact information.

Sometime later, August saw two of the girls again, but this time the two teenagers approached him. Had it not been for the flier August gave them and the suicide hotline it listed, they said, their friend might have taken her own life.

“You just don’t know who’s going to be in need,” August said.

Street Outreach is often the only encounter young people have with YSB, so the work is crucial in spreading the word about the organization’s 21-day Safe Station shelter, drop-in center, youth development services, crisis hotlines and programs for young mothers.

August sees many familiar faces when he’s out - young people he has come to know over the years through Street Outreach’s work in local schools and the dozen other locations the team regularly visits.

Outreach is a program built on establishing and building relationships with young people, August said, and the only way to do that is to be in the community talking with young people. That’s why August tries to be as visible as possible, typically going to the same locations at the same time every week.

“There’s no way to really know who’s homeless and who isn’t, who’s in need, who’s at-risk and who’s just fine,” August said. “We are trying to develop a web so they can feel comfortable that they will open up and say, ‘I know somebody,’ or say, ‘I’m somebody who’s in need.’”

The Youth Service Bureau is chasing a growing population that’s becoming harder to find.

Multiple reports have shown that the homeless youth populations in Indiana, and the United States, are on the rise. The National Center on Family Homelessness last year reported an 8 percent increase in youth homelessness nationally; it estimated Indiana’s youth homeless population to be nearly 32,000 in 2012-13. That was up from about 30,000 the year before.

Though the Indiana Department of Education’s numbers on homeless youth also reflect an increase in the state, they showed that there were 151 students registered in St. Joseph County schools who were identified as homeless in 2012-13, down from 213 the year before.

But there is a flaw in the state numbers, said Christina McGovern, community connections director for the Youth Service Bureau.

The count includes only students enrolled in school for that particular year. The problem, McGovern said, is young people who YSB works with aren’t typically enrolled in school, meaning they aren’t represented in the reported numbers.

And YSB is finding it’s serving more people than in years past. The Youth Service Bureau tracks its numbers by fiscal year, and from July 2013 to June 2014, the YSB’s Safe Station shelter served 184 people, up from 173 the previous year.

That’s a daily average of about seven people in the shelter. So far this fiscal year, the shelter has served about 71 people. Those are just the numbers for Safe Station and don’t include those in other services YSB offers.

But why is a growing population so hard to find?

A large part of the problem is many people don’t consider themselves homeless, said Shotunus Peterson, YSB director of programs. It’s not just a young person living on the streets who falls under the definition of homeless.

Many young people “couch surf,” bouncing around different relatives’ or friends’ houses instead of having a single, stable home.

“They look at it as, ‘Well, I’m not on the street so I’m not homeless,’” Peterson said, “But in a way they are.”

The definition of homelessness that the Department of Education and YSB work under includes those couch-surfing, as well as living in doubled-up housing and motels.

To begin to address the issue of finding undocumented homeless people, YSB sought the expertise of Frances Kominkiewicz, professor and chair of the Department of Social Work and Gerontology at Saint Mary’s College.

It was Kominkiewicz’s task, with the help of her fall Research Methods class, to assess how an accurate population count could be done locally. Kominkiewicz quickly found out why that task has been hard to accomplish. To start, the class needed a working definition of the population they wanted to count, Kominkiewicz said. Looking at different agencies across the country, though, a clear and consistent definition of homeless youth didn’t exist.

Not all agencies use similar definitions as YSB and the DOE, which can cause issues for organizations looking for funding or people looking for services.

Then the biggest question to tackle was the obvious one: How can this population be accurately counted? Unfortunately, the answer couldn’t be found in just one semester, Kominkiewicz said.

Two senior social work majors at Saint Mary’s will continue the research this semester with Kominkiewicz. From the work done so far, Kominkiewicz said she knows they are on the right track.

“The Youth Service Bureau is definitely on the cutting edge in exploring this research,” Kominkiewicz said.

Ten to 11 years ago, August could talk to up to 300 young people a night at the mall. Now, he’s lucky if he can reach more than 50 in an evening. It’s the rise of the Internet and social media that August sees as the major change.

People “hang out” online more than ever, he said, and they aren’t meeting in public places like the mall as they once did. The young people are still out there, but not in the way they used to be.

But the work to track contacts made in public places, and the work YSB does as a whole, helped restore a crucial grant the organization lost about four years ago.

Street Outreach’s capabilities were cut by almost 75 percent when the funding was lost, August said, limiting the outreach work to only area schools.

The good news came this past fall, said Bonnie Strycker, the group’s executive director. The Administration for Children restored the YSB grant, one of only 16 given to organizations across the country.

The three-year grant provides almost $106,000 each year, which not only expanded Street Outreach, but allowed YSB to hire a new case manager and reopen its drop-in center, which closed in December 2013.

“The need didn’t go down, it was there,” August said. “Who wasn’t there was Street Outreach. Just getting back out there is huge.”

It’s the end of August’s Wednesday night. The echoes of shoppers in the mall have been replaced with the pulsing beat of pop dance mixes and the stampede-like rumble of rubber wheels on a wooden floor.

USA Skate Center in Mishawaka is the typical stop for Street Outreach after the mall. It’s a different location, but the goal is the same.

August walks along the skating floor, keeping an eye out for contacts. He approaches two young men sitting at a plastic picnic table. Unlike many of the young people August talks to, these two men haven’t met him before.

“Have you heard about the Youth Service Bureau?” August asks, bending down to meet the two men eye-to-eye.

They shake their heads no, and August has just met two new clients. They might not need help at this moment, but now they know August’s face and the work YSB does.

For almost the entire life of Street Outreach, August has been that face for the work being done. He started as a volunteer for the Center for the Homeless before being offered a job at the Youth Service Bureau. It’s not the recognition he cares about, though.

Street Outreach needs to be recognized in the community for it to succeed at identifying and serving at-risk youth, he said. Because that’s what matters, the visibility of the program and helping the young people.

“They see me and they see Street Outreach,” August said, “that’s the important part. That they see the program.”

___

Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com


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