On a normal summer day, as many as 150 youth would hang out each day at SafeZone, a drop-in center for homeless youth in St. Paul, Minn. Its comfy couches, widescreen TV and air conditioning are a rare indoor respite for young people living on the streets or hopping around the couches of friends and family.
This summer, the hangout space, kitchen and recording studio are all empty as Face to Face, the nonprofit that operates SafeZone, continues to mitigate the risks brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Today, SafeZone, which is the only drop-in youth center in the county, still serves clients – but in a socially distant way.
“We have continued to provide all the services,” said Face to Face Executive Director Hanna Getachew-Kreusser. “It’s just not in person.”
Face to Face opened in 1972 as a walk-in crisis counseling and reproductive health clinic. Today, the nonprofit provides myriad services, including medical care, mental health care, housing support, case management and employment training for youth ages 11-24. The organization opened SafeZone in 1994, serving youth ages 14-24.
Before COVID-19, SafeZone offered hot showers, meals and personal care items. Jacorey SkottMyhre, who manages homeless youth programs for Face to Face, said youth lost access to their place to rest and be in community with each other. But for safety reasons, SafeZone moved the pantry and personal hygiene items to the street-level entranceway, where youth drop by to pick them up.
“It’s really important to us that we’re not creating an environment where we get youth sick,” SkottMyhre said. “We’re serving youth one by one.”
As a result of sheltering in place, Getachew-Kreusser said many youth also lost access to shelter options, such as friends’ couches. In response, Face to Face used community donations to purchase tents for youth, she said.
Additionally, Face to Face started a hotel housing program modeled after a similar Ramsey County program that housed 20 youth in downtown St. Paul hotels, which ended in mid-June, she added. Getachew-Kreusser said Face to Face received state COVID-19 relief funds through Minnesota’s Office of Economic Opportunity to provide housing for 20 youth.
Unfortunately, SkottMyhre added, the new program is temporary because the funds are for COVID-19 relief. Getachew-Kreusser said she hopes to partner with Ramsey County to sustain the program.
“We’re trying to expand as much as we can but we’re scrambling a little bit,” SkottMyhre said.
Face to Face staff also shifted most medical, mental health and case management services to over the phone. Since some youth don’t have cellphone access, several foundations and businesses donated funds to purchase devices for them, Getachew-Kreusser said.
The devices gave staff a vehicle to reach out directly to youth, which has been a vital tool to check on clients’ well-being, she said. Staff became more attuned to mental health check-ins in late May after the killing of George Floyd by several Minneapolis police officers. Floyd’s death, which followed several other recent high-profile killings of Black people by current or former police, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, sparked a wave of protests around the country.
During the first weeks of protests, SkottMyhre said youth came to the pantry site for first aid and hydration after exposure to tear gas and rubber bullets.
“Our young people are pretty traumatized by this and pretty angry,” Getachew-Kreusser said. “Things young people have been experiencing for generations are coming to the surface because of George Floyd.”
Homelessness in the area reflects the racial disparities in the metropolitan area, Getachew-Kreusser added: 85% of the youth Face to Face serves are people of color.
That’s not a coincidence, she said. While 73% of homeless Minnesota youth are Black, American Indian, Hispanic or mixed race, youth of color comprise 26% of the total population, according to the 2019 Minnesota Department of Human Services Homeless Youth Act Biennial Report.
Minnesotans of color are also disproportionately affected by COVID-19. According to state case data, Latinx Minnesotans are testing positive nine times higher than white Minnesotans. Black Minnesotans are testing positive seven times higher than white Minnesotans, according to state data.
Getachew-Kreusser said she’s used Face to Face social media platforms to amplify the experiences of people of color. In June, she hosted weekly Facebook and Instagram live panel discussions on historical trauma, resiliency in youth, and the experiences of mothers raising children of color.
In the coming months, SkottMyhre added he hopes to shift more Face to Face programming online, particularly their recording arts program, to give kids a creative outlet.
As Minnesota reopens, Getachew-Kreusser said Face to Face will follow guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the state Health Department, and is “evaluating what is safe for our youth as well as our community as we allow gathering in our Drop-In Center.
“Our job is to listen to what our youth are needing at this point and not expose them to more risk,” she said.
Kim Schneider is a freelancer reporter and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.