Nestled into the side streets of Uptown Minneapolis sits a large, brick building. It might not stand out among the other brick apartment buildings of the Lowry Hill neighborhood, but for homeless youth and runaways with nowhere else to turn, it can represent safety, hope and a second chance.
The Bridge for Youth opened its first emergency shelter program on December 1, 1970. The idea came when Sister Rita Steinhagen, part of the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet, saw a need in her community: runaway and homeless youth living on the streets or in dangerous situations. “Sister Rita said ‘Somebody needs to do something about this,’” says Bridge for Youth executive director Michelle Basham.
“For many, many years the focus was runaways,” Basham explains. Runaways tend to be younger and, if possible, the Bridge will work with the runaways and their families to achieve unification. Every year about 900 youth are a part of this program.
The Bridge for Youth has grown, changed and moved locations many times since Steinhagen’s idea became a reality. In 2002 the Bridge expanded to include homeless youth. Homeless youth are usually older and family unification tends to be more difficult. Youth who cannot reconnect with their families might participate in the Transitions program, where the focus is on preparing youth for independent living. This program houses around 1,000 youth a year. The Bridge is currently in the process of raising money for a new program—Rita’s House. Rita’s House will offer support to youth ages 18–21 who are experiencing homelessness or have aged out of other programs.
Bridge for Youth board chair Scott Thomas-Forss started with the organization as an intern in the 1980s. He remembers this experience as a turning point in his life. “It’s a very open, inclusive and welcoming agency,” says Thomas-Forss. “It’s really an atmosphere where you can be who you are.” As a gay man, Thomas-Forss credits his time interning with the Bridge for helping him come out to his friends and family.
Last year the Bridge received 3,884 crisis calls, which coincides with a large increase in the number of homeless youth. “Sometimes people think that youth run away or are homeless because they are delinquents,” says Basham. “Most of the time they are homeless because they have been abused, neglected, disowned or exploited.” Sometimes these youth have no family at all, Basham explains. At any given time 40–60 percent of youth at the Bridge are LGBTQ, she says.
Despite the discouraging statistics, over the years there have been many moments of hope. Both Basham and Thomas-Forss recall a story of a young man who spent time at the Bridge as a teenager. His mom suffered from both a physical disability and a history of severe mental illness. “[She] did her best to care for him, but when [he] turned 18 she had to legally kick him out,” Basham says. After receiving services from the Bridge, the young man is now attending college on a scholarship, living in the dorms and interning with a local congressman.
For all of us with homes and families we can turn to on frigid days or after a bad week at work, the problem of youth homelessness can find its way into the side streets of our lives. It’s easy to look away, but since 1970 when Steinhagen opened the Bridge for Youth, the need has continued to be very real. And as this need continues to be real, the Bridge will continue to be a symbol of hope.
To volunteer at the Bridge for Youth call 612.377.8800 and ask for a volunteer coordinator. To donate to the Bridge for Youth visit the website here.