The 15th Night, an organization dedicated to safeguarding youth against homelessness, is eyeing Cottage Grove to expand its project.
As the city debates how to handle its homelessness issues with the adult population, 15th Night Community Coordinator Megan Shultz hopes her group can provide an avenue of relief in the area for an often-overlooked segment of the population.
“Youth are a part of the puzzle that has to be talked about,” she said. “But in most communities, youth are not on their radar screen.”
The 15th Night has been operating in the Eugene-Springfield area for around six years, combatting youth homelessness by connecting existing resources and finding ways to keep kids in school and off the streets. The group’s approach uses youth-informed community movements to achieve its ends.
The name was derived from an observation made by Looking Glass Community Services that, when a youth is new to homelessness, there is a narrow window of time (two weeks) to intervene before that youth is 80 to 85 percent more likely to experience chronic homelessness.
Momentum for the movement to address youth homelessness in Eugene reached a high point in 2015 when an array of public, private and nonprofit organizations came together to make the spark that would form 15th Night.
Shultz credits former Eugene City Manager John Ruiz for initial efforts to recruit young people into a Youth Action Council that could bring the voice of the affected population to the table.
“He brought together community leaders and people that cared about the issue of youth homelessness with the Youth Action Council and just started listening to what youth said and what they thought the community should do,” said Shultz. “And really, the first thing that happened from those conversations was realizing when a student or a youth who’s navigating homelessness has the courage enough to ask someone for help, that person needs to be able to deliver.”
A follow-up survey of the youths revealed a list of 65 needs to address.
“Everything from what I call the easy stuff — which is food, shoes, clothes — to the really hard stuff, which is housing, shelter, family mediation, and substance abuse treatment,” said Shultz. “And then things in between, like help with employment, mental health services, dental care — anything you can imagine.”
The next step was to reach out to community organizations to find out how each of these needs could be fulfilled. Shultz, who made those phone calls, said the response from the organizations was overwhelmingly positive.
“And so now we have a network that can provide those things,” she said.
The next challenge was to connect youth to those resources in real time. From this, the digital resource RAN (Rapid Access Network) was developed. In 2016, the network launched.
“So if I am a student that needs shoes, an alert goes out in the RAN to any of the network partners that provide those things,” Shultz explained. “And so, if I am a partner that provides food, or employment, help with employment, I do not get that alert. I’m only getting alerts for what I said I can help with.”
At this point, the Youth Action Council still wasn’t finished. They next focused on schools, informing other students, staff and parents what the needs for at-risk youth are and to understand what best practices might be for those in vulnerable situations.
At one high school, the approach was to normalize asking for help.
“The thought is, if we’re making asking for help and getting help normal across the entire student population, that only makes it easier for our unhoused students to ask for help. Because then everybody’s asking for help, and it’s okay to ask for help,” said Shultz. “And then we trained all the staff in the building like the custodian, the librarian, the cook, the math teacher, the school counselor, everybody, to be able to send alerts in their own RAN on behalf of their own students.”
The group’s strategy has had success, but it has yet to be implemented outside the Eugene-Springfield area. Cottage Grove will be the first foray into the rural landscape.
Shultz has so far conducted some 30 interviews with Cottage Grove stakeholders to get the lay of the land and still has more to do before painting a full picture of the community.
She was able to report, though, that around 80 high school students identified as “‘unaccompanied,’ which basically means they’re unstably housed, and they are not with their parent or guardian,” she said. “And for 15th Night, those are the students that are our main focus, because we believe they’re just one step away from the street.”
So far, prospects are promising for the group to be able to integrate into Cottage Grove.
“What we’re finding is that this community —really cares at about their community. And that there’s a lot of connectedness amongst schools and organizations and churches, etc.,” she said. “There’s already this network working to help all people in Cottage Grove for different reasons.”
Despite this network, Cottage Grove is also navigating its own issue with adult homelessness. Shultz believes, though, that 15th Night can at least in part provide some relief.
“If we don’t help [youths], they are your next homeless adult,” she said. “It’s not the answer to everything, but it is a way to turn the spigot off to your street. So, if we, as an entire community can support those students, there’ll be less of them that end up on your street.”
Partners are already jumping on board with the project, too.
Alicia Beymer, chief administrative officer for PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center University District and Cottage Grove Community Medical Center, said the health care system has partnered with 15th Night and helped with funding the assessment because the organization is a perfect match with the PeaceHealth mission.
“The goal is to conduct a review and to evaluate the needs of youth that are at risk of becoming permanently unhoused and develop a plan that meets the specific needs of our Cottage Grove Community,” she said.
Beymer also echoed Shultz’s enthusiasm to see a strong network of support already in the area.
“I’ve been so impressed by how strong of a commitment Cottage Grove already has to supporting vulnerable populations. And I just think that this program will really enhance that,” she said. “It’ll just be a way to really bring us all together in a more structured manner that can help us really provide timely assistance to those youth with their individual needs.”
Though its too early to tell what exactly 15th Night’s presence might look like in Cottage Grove, it’s also unlikely it would be highly noticeable by the average person once it moves in. The model is based on building alliances with already-existing networks within the community and integrating services like RAN across those networks. In effect, it works to enhance what’s already there and build upon those foundations.
“We will find a way to bring more awareness of the issue of unstably housed youth to the community and work with the community to get that information out,” said Shultz. “And then I think that there also will be a big push for what we call ‘community responders.’ So that’s community members, any community member, that wants to help support the needs that come up for students or families that can’t be met by the school district or cannot be met by the network of organizations that you have.”
An example may be as simple as a community member taking time to deliver shoes to a student in need.
“And so, there’s a real there’s a way for this work to engage the entire community,” said Shultz. “There’s a way for them to be part of the solution, easily.”
Recommendations for Cottage Grove are due around mid-March, after which more details of the 15th Night presence in the community will be available.