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UIX: Homeless youth call 3:11 for the keys to true independence

Lauren and Jon Van Keulen

More than 2,000 young people are homeless in Kent County every night. Of those who can find a bed for the night, the following day may not be as dim. And for those who find 3:11 Youth Housing, there's a path toward opportunity, growth and change.
More than one and a half million people call West Michigan home. Sadly, for some of the youngest in that number, the definition of home doesn't come with the warmth and stability many others may take for granted.
 
For a number of services, but most importantly the chance at a home and stable friendships, youth in need can call 3:11 Youth Housing. Headquartered at 623 Naylor St. SW, the organization sets once homeless young people on a path toward a "healthy interdependence" with safe and affordable places to live and grow. 
 
The help couldn't have come at a better possible time for the young people who have made it through 3:11's program and are now living on their own; or likewise for those who have landed fulfilling jobs through Bethany Christian Services, or found friendship and hope at Grand Rapids HQ. But they're just a fraction of a growing issue.
 
In many parts of the country, child homelessness, is getting larger each year. According to  U.S. Census data from 2013, there were almost two and a half million homeless children living on the streets, representing one in every 30 in the country. That number was 8 percent higher than the population of homeless children estimated in the previous year.
 
In Kent County, 3:11 maintains, over 2,000 young people, ages 14-24, are experiencing homelessness. That means over 80 young people, ages 18-24, are experiencing homelessness on any given night. 
 
Of those that can find a bed for the night, the following day may not be as dim. For those that find 3:11, however, there's a path toward opportunity, growth and change. It's this organization's goal to "bridge the gap between homelessness and interdependence." 
 
A Solid Foundation
 
Founded in 2012 by Wyoming residents Lauren and Jonathan VanKeulen, 3:11 Youth Housing began as a single duplex on Grand Rapids Southwest side where young people could live and find work with the help of a dedicated mentor right next door. Lauren, who obtained a degree in Elementary Education from Calvin College in 2008, and Master's Degree in Social Work from the University of Southern California, brings experience in crisis counseling, case management, program development, grant writing, and real estate market research to the team. Along with Jonathan's 15 years in the construction trade, 3:11 expanded to three homes in West Michigan, offering even more opportunities to assist youth in finding firm footing.
 
"We start from a place where youth are at, and we walk with them to wherever they want to get," Lauren says.
 
From Right to Left, Ja-Quari Moore-Bass: Youth Alumni and House Mentor, Lauren Van Keulen: Co-Executive Director, Kayla Morgan: Community Liaison and House Mentor, Kendra Avila: Administrative Assistant.The model is both holistic and long term, VanKeulen says, with few rules or restrictions. The clients set goals up for their lives when they sign the lease, they pay $200 a month, $50 of which goes into a savings account, and they are expected to hold themselves accountable from then on. When they move out, often the savings account has enough to cover the first month's rent and security deposit for their new place.
 
There's no time limit to how long youths can stay, either, but VanKeulen says an average 3:11 client will spend around 18 months to two years as a resident before deciding to move out on their own.
 
"We never want to create a gap in services for young people," VanKeulen says.
 
As youth enter a 3:11, they become part of a community, with access to immediate support and encouragement in the form of resident house mentors. Each week, residents meet for dinner, forming bonds around the common traditions of birthday celebrations, holidays, and other events,
 
"Our house mentors are the long term relationship first step person," VanKeulen says. "A young person comes downstairs orcomes to a dinner and says 'hey, I'm going to quit my job tomorrow.' The house mentor is that relationship building piece that says 'alright, what's going on? Why do you want to quit? Are you able to stay for two weeks until you get another job? Let's talk about it.'" 
 
Fifteen youths have been set off on stabler ground since 3:11 first opened. The organization relies on evidence based testing to measure progress in life skills and employment, and the findings often reflect the reality that is working with young people; important lessons may not find purchase in a new resident's mind until months into the relationship.
 
"Often times, we will see young people go through three, four, five, or even six jobs in the first year as they are just trying to maintain and understand stability," VanKeulen says. "They've been couch surfing for so long, or not knowing where they are going to stay that night, that even getting a job is such a barrier because they don't have an address to put on the job application. Once they move in and get settled or get a job, they often go through multiple the first year. By the second year, they're really transitioning and staying in employment for long term."
 
Some of 3:11's graduates have maintained the same job for three or four years, VanKeulen says, and have maintained the same housing after moving out for even longer, leveraging the long-term proof of paying rent on time at 3:11 to land their new homes.
 
But it all starts with a clean, warm place to stay. From there, with the help of community partnerships, other opportunities are open to 3:11 residents.
 
Setting Goals
 
When the VanKeulens first set up the lease agreement for 3:11 residents, they relied on nationally accepted standards, which in turn provided some unexpected insight. Using a sliding scale, the initial rental rate was set at 30 percent of a resident's income.
 
"They told us, 'You know that makes me not want to work, right?'" VanKeulen said. "That was interesting, and it made sense."
 
They didn't want to charge more than 30 percent of each resident's income, but to incentivize employment a limit had to be set. Two hundred dollars a month, with 25 percent going to each resident's "rental savings account," provides just such incentive. The importance of setting goals and meeting those obligations follows through other aspects of the 3:11 process as well.
 
Each young person sets short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals, and works to achieve these goals with their youth advocate, house mentors, and individuals in 3:11's supportive networks, like Bethany Christian Services.
 
According to VanKeulen, "educational barriers are broken down as youth obtain high school diplomas, GEDs, and attend college; employment barriers are decreased as supportive employers partner to hire youth and train them in vocational sectors; and authentic life skills training occurs within the context of real-life situations and creates opportunities for growth."
 
Justin Beene, director of Bethany's Center for Community Transformation, has spent most of his professional career concentrating on enabling youth, as well as business and economic development. He says, where the VanKeulen's do incredible work in purchasing the homes and rebuilding them with the help of Bethany students, and then putting mentoring couples into those homes, Bethany really provides the wraparound case management and support for those youth. 
 
Ja-Quari Moore-Bass: Youth Alumni and House Mentor, Kayla Morgan: Community Liaison and House Mentor.Working with the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Labor, Bethany agents can connect 3:11 residents to anything from GED completion programs, to vocational training. Once students complete the months-long employment program, they're placed in a position and Bethany covers the payroll for the first 6 to 8 weeks, after which, the employers and Bethany review the candidates performance and possibly seek a longer-term contract.
 
Beene says he understands the challenges many youth face, growing up poor in an urban environment. But his passion for learning would take him to Western Michigan University for his undergraduate degree, followed by the University of Michigan where he mastered in social work. He appended his educational career with a masters in ministry leadership from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and, upon this story's publication date, is currently preparing an oral dissent for a doctorate in entrepreneurial transformational leadership from Bakke Graduate University. 
 
It's this last subject that Beene is most interested in as a way to effect change and improve the lives of young people.
 
Looking at these issues in the context of a city, bringing cross-factorial solutions--the church, nonprofits, and for profit--together in a way that moves the needle is really how I see change being made," he says.
 
A Community Approach
 
Nonprofit organizations like 3:11 wouldn't be able to offer such long-term housing and mentorship programs without the help of a supportive network of partners. 
 
With Bethany Christian Services handling case management and employment programming, the mentors at 3:11 are able to concentrate more on improving life skills and connecting with residents on other levels. And with the financial assistance of Mars Hill Church and Herman Miller, the organization's most recent expansion into a third home was completed in 2016.
 
Youth homelessness isn't an problem that can be solved in a vacuum. But in working with similarly aligned local organizations like the HQ Runaway and Homeless Youth Drop-In Center, it's a problem the community can confront with every available resource.
 
Shandra Steininger, Executive Director of HQ, says West Michigan is just starting to understand the magnitude of its homeless youth population, a view previously hindered by unreliable data collection, among other issues.
 
"Many of the structures and systems that have been developed are done so with adults in mind and youth often slip through those cracks," Steininger says. "The system just isn't designed to support their needs well. We have a lot of work to do in understanding the scope of the issue."
 
That work is going to involve building strong, long-term relationships with young people in need. That's what builds a foundation for growth, for finding work, for keeping a job, and for maintaining stable housing, Steininger says.
 
"It's one thing to say you got a kid a job or a house, and check that box, but if you're not willing to stay in that relationship and do the hard work, that's when turnover happens," she says.
 
Fortunately, for more and more young people in West Michigan, those checking the boxes are starting to see the value in building relationships and walking their clients through the process. HQ has placed a number of youth that stop by the drop-in center into gainful employment, and even stable housing in one of the 3:11 units. 
 
"That's the warm relational handoff instead of giving them a phone number and a bus pass and saying 'good luck,'" Steininger says.
 
It can take a long time for young people who have been hurt by the system or are otherwise distrustful, to open up and share what's really going on in their lives. For those that are willing to open up, 3:11 is ready to open the door, and keep it open, for as long at it takes.
 
For more information on 3:11 Youth housing, visit http://www.3-11.org/
 
Photography by Steph Harding
 
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.
 
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