Until recently, 22-year-old Fernando was in survival mode every day. Homeless for three years, he lived much of that time in a car. “At least I had a roof over my head,” he said. But there was one eight-month stretch when he slept outside in sleeping bag. “Homelessness is a terrible situation, especially this time of year,” he said.

Fernando, who asked that his last name not be used, was one of the speakers at a press conference on January 31 at Framingham State University, where Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito highlighted a comprehensive plan to end youth homelessness in the state. They announced $3.3 million in funding from the state’s FY20 budget to 10 community partners. Through one of those partners —the City of Springfield—Gándara Center is receiving more than $245,000 for services to homeless youth, including an overnight shelter for young adults that it plans to open in Springfield in the near future. The shelter, at a site to be determined, will have six to eight beds for youth aged 18 to 24.

The shelter is one of several Gándara Center efforts to address youth homelessness, which is on the rise in the United States. In FY18, Gándara placed 40 homeless young adults in housing. Gándara Center’s SHINE Young Adult Housing Program provides rapid re-housing and outreach services for up to 22 homeless, unaccompanied young adults. Research has shown that those who receive rapid re-housing, which provides short-term rental assistance and intensive case management services, are homeless for shorter periods than those assisted with shelter or transitional housing.

“Also, our Springfield Family Resource Center provides supportive services for families with multiple issues,” said Sharon Hall-Smith, director of prevention and community services at Gándara Center. “This, in turn, builds resilience in youth that makes them less susceptible to homelessness in the future.”

Gándara’s Impact Center in Springfield serves youth aged 16 to 21 who are, or at risk of, becoming homeless and may have mental health and/or substance use concerns. They are connected to resources for jobs, housing, education, recovery navigation, and more. Staff at SHINE coordinate closely with Impact Center staff, referring youth in SHINE housing to services at the Impact Center. SHINE staff also visit the Impact Center on a regular basis to conduct initial assessments with youth who may be homeless. If necessary, they get these youth entered into the city’s homeless database, which is the first step in getting them into programs such as rapid re-housing.

Indeed, much of what Gándara Center does—providing mental health, substance use, and preventive services—results in the strengthening of families, which prevents youth homelessness, since many homeless youth flee dysfunctional families torn apart by mental illness and addiction.

Ending Youth Homelessness Statewide

At the press conference, Baker and Polito also revealed their new housing pilot program to provide dorm rooms to homeless students attending college. Baker said the programs are “a very different kind of approach” in responding to youth homelessness.

“When you’re talking about young people, you have to think much more broadly and much more creatively and much more expansively,” said Baker. “The model that’s been developed in this state-wide effort is very consistent with the circumstances and situations that young people find themselves in.”

Prior to the press conference, Baker and Polito spoke with college students who have experienced homelessness to gain a better perspective of the problem.

“The biggest thing I would say is the amount of resilience these kids have shown on their own, in many cases, is extraordinary,” Baker said. “I just want to say how grateful I am that they can tell these stories and do it in a way that shows no regret, no anger, no hostility, but with the ability to say, ‘Hey, this is what happened, this is how I dealt with it, and now I’m trying to figure out the path forward.’”

Polito said that preventing and ending youth homelessness is a top priority in their administration. “The FY20 budget continues the highest commitment ever to address youth homelessness so that we can continue to intervene and work with local partners and leaders on college campuses across Massachusetts to implement the type of support services needed for young people experiencing crises,” she said.

It is estimated that at least 1,800 young adults in Massachusetts experience homelessness every year, but Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders feels that the number of homeless youth is underreported. She said when she was in college she listed herself as an “emancipated minor” but likely wouldn’t have reported herself as homeless. She added that there will be more comprehensive efforts in the state to survey homeless youth in the future.

“I learned the art of couch-surfing, borrowing people’s cars to stay in, and working in food services so I’d always have something to eat,” said Sudders.

In an interview, Fernando recalled his day-to-day focus of getting food, finding a place to sleep, and finding a way to bathe and wash his clothes. “There was also the constant threat of being picked up on vagrancy charges by the police,” he said. Fernando’s homelessness ended in mid-January when he got an apartment with the help of Framingham’s Tempo Young Adult Resource Center. He also has steady income, having recently gotten a job at a VERC convenience store in Framingham.

Fernando praised the Baker Administration’s efforts to end youth homelessness by connecting teens and young adults with education, employment and housing support and services in their communities. “This is like a kick-start to help young people get back on their feet,” he said.

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