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Unsheltered Youth At Risk For Falling Through Cracks During Pandemic

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Looking Glass
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For the past three weeks schools have closed and most public spaces have shut down in Oregon. This has homeless providers in Lane County concerned youth will fall under the radar as officials scramble to meet the needs of high-risk groups. Advocates are pushing for greater resources and funding, including a youth shelter.

There are around 500 unaccompanied students across the 4J, Springfield, and Bethel School Districts,  Megan Shultz said. She’s the Community Coordinator for 15th Night. The organization works directly with this subgroup of hard to count youth.

Recently 15th Night has had difficulty finding where youth are, and more importantly what they might need amid a global pandemic.

“You’re afraid of what to do when these kids get sick, what to do if they’re carrying it around and getting other people sick? Now, it’s not just about their needs, it’s about our community, it’s about your needs, your ability to stay healthy is in a way going to rely on our ability to keep these kids healthy,” she said.

15th night and other providers are surveying homeless youth they can find to gather information on what they need. They’ll use data collected to put forth a proposal in hopes they can open a youth shelter soon.                 

“The clock is ticking, and we don’t have a choice, it has to be done,” Shultz said. The proposal is expected to be completed by April 8. 

Some of the questions on the survey ask for age, where they slept the previous night, whether foster care is an option, and if they’ve had any flu symptoms.

“Those of us who have a family, or a place to live, or people around us, and other adults...if we get sick we have people who can watch out for us, make sure we’re getting liquids and have medicine, that we’re recovering ” Tauna Nelson said. Nelson is a coordinator at 15th Night with Shultz.

“Right now, there’s a whole bunch of kids who if they got sick, they would be on their own,” Nelson said.

With support from the cities and community partners, Lane County opened two homeless respite sites in Eugene and Springfield. Though youth won’t be turned away from these sites, Nelson said these sites aren't tailored for youth.

Lane County told KLCC they have not made a youth respite site since youth are currently not a high-risk group. However, should homeless youth in direct relation to COVID-19 need a place to stay, they would take necessary measures.

Asked about whether she thought unsheltered youth belonged in a high-risk category during the pandemic, Nelson responded:

“I could see where people could argue that [youth] have great immune systems because they’re used to battling a lot, but they could have poor immune systems because of the environments they’re spending a lot of time [in],” she said. 

Nelson added some of the youth she works with have underlying health issues like immune disorders, asthma, and cancer.

At the moment there’s only one nationally accredited youth shelter in Lane County, Looking Glass’ Station 7. Director Craig Opperman said the coronavirus has changed how they run the shelter.

“We have a capacity of 12 there, but in order to maintain social distancing, and make sure we can prevent the spread of the virus, and be as safe as possible and preventative as possible, we’ve reduced the numbers there to half that,” Opperman said. 

Looking Glass placed hand washing stations outside and limited the number of drop-ins they can see at their facilities at a given time. They haven’t stopped services, but they’ve had to ration them, Opperman said.

“There weren’t enough resources before, before [the pandemic] started, there weren’t enough resources to meet all the needs in the community,” he said. 

Opperman said prior to COVID-19, they were already in a funding crisis to keep the shelter open. The pandemic only added another layer of distress. 

In response, homeless providers across the county have boosted collaborative efforts with each other and the community to keep services flowing. Opperman said he's grateful for all the heroic acts everyone has done. Though they’ve been in contact before, now their partnerships are crucial. 

“We’re doing as much as we can to support each other, but the cities, the counties, the state, and the federal government need to recognize those emergency funds, and the things they’re talking about in order to get us through this crisis, need to come down,” Opperman said.

The Lane County Board of County Commissioners recently authorized the use of up to $5 million in emergency funds on March 31. It’s unclear where that money will be allocated since it’s meant to be spent on needs that arise during the pandemic.

Reverend Adam Briddell said he hopes some of that money will find its way to unsheltered youth. Briddell is a pastor at First United Methodist Church in Eugene. They host the youth site for St. Vincent de Paul’s Egan Warming Center.

“Even with the Looking Glass asset, when we open that hypothermia shelter we always get between 20 and 35 kids who need that low barrier shelter option in unsafe times,” Briddell said.

Egan only opens when temperatures are projected to drop below 30 degrees fahrenheit. Their season ended at the end of March. When Egan doesn't activate, Briddell said youth will often camp outside the church, and now they’re likely couch surfing. 

“Community education is so important if we’re going to mitigate the spread and flatten the curve. We need these kiddos to understand what they can be doing to mitigate transmission and not put themselves, and other vulnerable populations at risk too,” he said. 

Briddell has been a vocal advocate in getting a youth shelter opened. He said St. Vincent de Paul is onboard to open a site but they’re waiting for Lane County to give them the greenlight.

“It’s encouraging and exciting to see people come together around our kids, and our young people who are often abandoned and forgotten about,” Tauna Nelson with 15th Night said. “But, it definitely stings and hurts that we’re having to make such a case for our young people right now.”

On April 3rd two teenagers in the Eugene-Springfield area, ages 16 and 18, tested positive for COVID-19. Lane County Public Health reports they’re both medically stable and are isolating at home.

Youth Crisis Help Lines:

© 2020 KLCC

 

Melorie Begay is a multimedia journalist for KLCC News. She was the Inaugural KLCC Public Radio Foundation Journalism Fellow. She has a bachelors in Multimedia Journalism from the University of New Mexico. She previously interned at KUNM public radio in Albuquerque, NM and served as a fellow for the online news publication New Mexico In Depth.