Temporary Safe Housing Expands for Local Teens

Two homes located on the Key Peninsula exist to help where help is needed, but recent intakes are rapidly changing with more homeless teens from greater Gig Harbor. 

Posted

Imagine complicating the challenge of adolescence without a dependable roof over your head. In March, thanks to a partnership between the local nonprofits Communities in Schools of Peninsula and Harbor Hope Center, a solution to that problem has been found.

HHC executive director Daniel Johnson said that the two-bedroom house on the Key Peninsula was purchased by HHC. Realtor Jennie Wetter donated her commission. A state capital grant for $295,000, sponsored by Rep. Jesse Young (R) Gig Harbor, will reimburse the costs of the purchase and new septic system. It will house five young women and a full-time resident adviser. A home that accommodates six young men, also on the Key Peninsula, has been operating for two years.

“My very first year here I had 18 students we were trying to help and support who needed some form of housing. There wasn’t a lot we could do,” said Wendy Wojtanowicz, the CISP site coordinator at Peninsula High School for the last four years.

The teens need housing for a number of reasons. Their families may face homelessness; sometimes there is significant parent-child conflict; or there may be drug or alcohol issues in the family. When they feel they can no longer live at home, teens often couch-surf with friends but, Wojtanowicz said, after six or eight weeks they typically run out of options.

Amy (not her real name) moved with her family into a relative’s house when they could not afford an increase in rent. The new situation felt untenable for Amy — it was crowded, and stressed all the family relationships.

“I needed to have more control over my own life,” she said. Amy moved in with a friend’s family for a while and now, with her mother’s permission, will be one of the new KP home’s first residents.

The homes are designed for young people from age 14 to 21. A resident adviser educated in such topics as adolescent development, childhood trauma and suicide awareness, provides oversight for the teens and prepares dinners during the week. Meals on weekends may be a group activity. Sometimes volunteers plan a special meal, bring ingredients and cook with the students. The teens do their own laundry and help with cleaning.

“The cool part is that with one student HHC gets them connected to a mentor, and counseling and then to a doctor,” Wojtanowicz said.

Each teen has a trained volunteer mentor who has made a one-year commitment to work with the student. Volunteer physicians can provide medical care and counseling. Drug and alcohol treatment professionals also volunteer with the program

“Once they get connected there are so many people that surround them. We show them they are not alone. They have a whole community to help them,” Wojtanowicz said.

The goal of the program is to provide temporary housing while surrounding the students with support, teaching life skills, providing other services as needed, and finding a viable permanent housing situation. That may be reconciliation with their family, including counseling, housing assistance and job training for the parent. Or it may mean identifying a host home, with volunteer families who also receive training before they welcome a student. Each student must have an education plan, ranging from high school or a technical program to working on a GED.

Zoe (not her real name) lives with a host family. She experienced a difficult family situation for years where she felt unsupported and verbally abused. She planned to move out as soon as she turned 18, and with CISP and Harbor Hope Center she found a host family and mentor. She is working with a counselor at Tacoma Community College and is making career plans.

“I have not only Wendy but my mentor, my host family and Harbor Hope Center. I have lots of options,” Zoe said. Her next step is to find a place of her own.

Zoe found a host family before the housing program was available, but Wojtanowicz said that having housing as a first step is helpful. Teens get to know others with similar issues. The resident adviser can get to know the students, identify problems and have a better chance of finding the right mentor and host family if reconciliation is not an option. The housing gives the student time and space for individual and family counseling. Each student is reassessed every 90 days, with the expectation that within three to six months they will no longer need the temporary housing and can open a place for the next student in need.

The home for boys has been open for two years and Wojtanowicz said there has been a learning curve in making it work. “I am so glad we didn’t open both homes at the same time. We have to remember that a lot of these students come from a situation with no structure whatsoever. They are in survival mode and we found out that putting a roof over their heads didn’t solve all their problems,” she said.

“We do checks on ourselves. Maybe our hopes and dreams are not what they want. We have them choose their own goals. We break them down to the simplest steps and the mentors help with the baby steps, teaching them skills to meet the goal.”

The homes are both on the Key Peninsula in part because that is where many of the students who need housing are located, Wojtanowicz said. “That is rapidly changing. Half of the kids I’m doing intakes on now are from greater Gig Harbor.”