Hidden Potential: Changing the Conversation Around Homeless Youth in Nevada

by Corrine Casanova

It’s difficult to tell the difference between a homeless youth and any other kid walking down the street. According to Michelle Gehr, executive director of Eddy House, a central intake center for home youth ages 12-24, they dress and talk the same as other kids their age. You don’t realize these same kids that are skateboarding during the day are sleeping back to back in the park at night for safety reasons.

The Eddy House is a safe haven for homeless youth Monday-Friday between the hours of 9-5. They currently aren’t open on weekends or evenings because of funding. Her push in the next four to six months is to open a 50-bed overnight drop in center in downtown Reno for homeless youth ages 12-24. At five p.m. these kids are released back on the street. Gehr is hoping to change that with the proposed 24 hour drop in center.

Gehr noted that homeless youth are homeless for different reasons than adults. Data and research shows that the relationship should not be mixed because the older homeless will prey on the younger people. In Reno, less than eight percent use the adult shelter citing safety concerns. Currently, homeless youth in Reno sleep in trees, in abandoned buildings, in parks and might cram 14-15 kids into a weekly motel room. Additionally, they are being trafficked and are engaging in survival sex. Gehr shared, “There is no safe space for them at night. One hundred percent of our kids say they are sexually abused or physically assaulted once a week on the street. We have a small window of opportunity. The data shows if you can intervene with homeless youth before the age of 25 they aren’t homeless so we have the potential of the community to lead the way nationally.” In the United States and Canada, nearly one out of five homeless youth are victims of human trafficking, according to a recent study completed by the University of Pennsylvania and Loyola University. Sex trafficking is also a problem in Reno although precise statistics are difficult to gather.

Eddy House has an extensive intake process where anyone entering the facility must complete an extensive 11-page intake form. They collect basic demographic information. One of the questions they ask is, “Where did you spend last night?” Gehr said, “A lot of times they will respond that they stayed in my house. They don’t have a house. They live on the streets so we really have to drill down because there is a shame factor and they view homelessness as a bump in the road. They feel this is just a temporary situation and all they need is a job and they will get back on their feet which in a lot of cases is true. They all want to work, finish their high school equivalency or receive their high school diploma and be productive members of our community. These kids are non-system kids. From an economic development standpoint, they end up on the streets because there is a lack of affordable or low-income housing here. As more and more parents downsize, some push their older teen onto the street. Our community has seen an increase in domestic violence and human trafficking. These kids find their way to the Eddy House through word of mouth.”

The Eddy House Statistics:

  • 43% have been in the foster system
  • 66% became homeless between the ages of 16-18
  • 50% have no high school diploma or GED
  • 74% are male
  • 34% have given birth or fathered a child
  • 59% have received mental health services
  • 93% are between the ages of 18-24

In 2016, Eddy House saw 504 individual kids and had about 6,200 interactions with them. Through August 2017, they have seen 625 individual kids and have had 6,000 interactions so far.  The top three needs of this population is employment, housing and food. The U.S. Inter Agency Council on Homelessness estimates the cost to a city for one homeless person to be between $30,000-$50,000 per year.

Eddy House doesn’t do traditional case management with the kids where they receive a treatment plan and work with case managers. Gehr noted that this doesn’t work with this population. “Everything we do is relationship based. They might have never had an adult that they could trust that wasn’t trying to exploit them so we really focus on the soft skills which you need to have a job. We help them with hand shaking and having a conversation with an adult. That’s where we start. My staff knows every kid by name. We know their stories. After the soft skills we move into care and comfort because if you are hungry and haven’t slept in three days, they can come in here and shower, get snacks, clothing and have a safe place to be. My whole focus here is to have this psychologically and physically safe. Most of our kids are suffering from PTSD and we are 100 percent trauma affected. It was either previous trauma as children or ongoing trauma from living on the street. Just living on the street is traumatic,” said Gehr.

The Eddy House has everything from life skills to job skills to art therapy, music therapy to individual group counseling. They encourage alternative therapies. In fact, they had a mindfulness group with a licensed marriage family therapist there recently. There were 65 hard street youth in class learning to be mindful. More kids wanted to attend but there wasn’t enough space. The Eddy House uses a collaborative model to partner with about 25 agencies. Some of those partners include the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, Northern Nevada Literacy Council, TMCC, the Notables for music therapy, Safe Embrace for domestic violence, Orvis School of Nursing, Planned Parenthood and the UNR School of Social Work. Gehr is continually looking for people that are experts in their field to share their expertise.

Behavior is a primary focus of this organization as many of the kids have never seen positive behavior in action. I they’ve never seen it they have no way of duplicating it. All the kids are required to sign a behavior contract when they come in so they are aware of the expectations and the rules. Gehr shared, “I’m probably the only organization that can have 74 street youth in a space of less than 1,000 square feet with no conflict.”

Finding employment is a number one priority. There is a basic job skills group where the kids learn where to look for a job, how to assess their skills, how to fill out an application and do an interview. About 140 kids have landed jobs so far this year. The non-profit pushes jobs as the kids are able to make the link between having a job and not being homeless.

Gehr concluded, “These kids are high potential. I am not interested in putting a Band-aid on the issue of youth homelessness. I don’t want to manage this problem. I want to solve it. This is a solvable issue. I like to think of the Eddy House as the first stop in a continuum of care so when we are able to expand to a facility with 50 beds, we can fill those beds. Ideally, I’d like a small medical clinic too as these kids go to the emergency room for any medical needs because they have nowhere else to go. And then we have classroom space and other space and hot food and we have showers and everything they need right there so they can get some stability and then I need other local organizations to put up low income or affordable housing so they can transition out. These kids have untapped potential. When I ask them what they want to be when they grow up they have the same dreams and desires as others, they want to be everything from a marine biologist to astronaut to a doctor and police officer. They don’t want to be here and have no desire to be associated with the homeless.”

The Eddy House offers tours for local businesses. There are opportunities for partnering with Eddy House where you can teach them skills specific to your business/organization. Gehr believes the answer to this youth homeless issue is the community as she estimates it costs Reno about $10 million a year. Together, Reno could become the national model for solving teenage homelessness.

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