On a mission
BY EILEEN PERSIKE
The phrase, “hidden in plain sight” is often used to describe the youth homeless population. There are no youth living in cardboard boxes on Rhinelander city streets, yet a retired Rhinelander pastor said he knows a homelessness problem exists in the Northwoods.
Chris Hucker was part of a mission initiative which began at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Rhinelander and initially broached the subject in 2014.
“Statistics on homeless youth were few and far between,” Hucker said. “But all the organizations we talked to said, ‘Oh yes, there’s a homelessness problem for youth in the area.’”
Homeless for rural youth can mean “couch surfing,” or moving from friend to friend, relative to relative as a family or as an individual. The at-risk population includes youth who have problems at home, parents who are unable to care for them or get them to school regularly.
A task group was assembled and a feasibility study began. The church initiative evolved into The Lifeboat Foundation of Wisconsin, a nonprofit incorporated to “…develop programs that fill gaps in community services for homeless or at-risk young people, specifically aged 16-25.”
Those gaps in community services exist because youth don’t fit the definition of homeless, Hucker explained. He said Lifeboat was hoping to create a homeless unit that was not a shelter but a long-term housing unit for youth in Rhinelander. After realizing the cost would be in the $3 million range, another option was sought.
There is a little-known federal law, the McKinney-Vento Act that guarantees all children the right to an education, including homeless youth.
“Lifeboat,” Hucker said, “is only concerned with the youth who want an education.”
KIN Rhinelander is an after school drop-in center located on Brown Street. Hucker says KIN regularly sees 25 youth, and more who come and go. Maybe they have problems at home, or don’t want to go home after school or need a place of safety. KIN is moving down the street, to a larger facility to accommodate more drop-ins.
“All would be considered at risk or homeless,” Hucker said. “They are more at-risk than homeless, but if they were in a suburban area they would be homeless. It’s just the way rural areas manage.”
What isn’t available to these kids is a safe place to spend the night and transportation to school. But Lifeboat has a plan.
Earlier this month the Homeless and At-Risk Youth Network Initiative met for the first time. Representatives from the Salvation Army, Forward Services, KIN Rhinelander, School District of Rhinelander and the Lifeboat Foundation met to discuss the increasing problems of youth homelessness and those at-risk of becoming homeless in Rhinelander. The Lifeboat Foundation explained plans for Host Home accommodations for at-risk and homeless young people.
“It’s not foster care, there’s no breakup of the family.” said Hucker. “Say you have a child you cannot handle at home. How about they go to a selected host home where they can get shelter, safety, mentorship, travel to school and food—all by a mentor who just wants to give back to society. It’s a problem that’s been taken off your plate, parent. And the child doesn’t have to worry about those things and can focus on getting an education.”
There are currently two homes getting prepared to be host homes, and Hucker said he expects others in the coming months. They will, he said, be another piece of the puzzle to solving youth homelessness in the Northwoods.