Organizations should pool resources to help homeless teens

You're 16 years old. Your father is in prison. When the bus drops you off after school, you discover that your drug-addicted mother has locked you out of the apartment. You have little money, no car, no cell phone and only the clothes you are wearing. The temperature is zero degrees and falling, and in less than two hours, the sun will set.

What do you do?

On any given day in Rochester, anywhere from 150 to 200 school-age teenagers face situations like this. Some go to school with backpacks crammed full of extra clothing and other necessities because they don't know where they'll be sleeping that night. Others don't go to school at all, opting instead to work whatever low-paying jobs they can find. 

It's a serious problem, which is why the 2010-11 class of Leadership Greater Rochester — the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce's 10-month leadership program — set out to tackle it. The initiative is called "A Place to Call Home," and its initial goal was to create a new homeless shelter for teens; however, it didn't take long for that vision to change. 

Derrick Chapman was one of five LGR members who met with the Post-Bulletin's editorial board on Wednesday, and he bluntly described the situation: "After discovering that there are 79 local groups and organizations that are working to address teen homelessness in various ways, we concluded that we didn't need to create another organization," he said. "Instead, we need the existing groups to work together."


So, unlike previous LGR classes that have created brick-and-mortar projects, this year's class has a different, less-tangible set of goals: increase public awareness of the problem of teen homelessness; help young people learn more about the assistance and services that are available; and encourage organizations to communicate better, perhaps even pooling resources to create a shelter for teens.

"It would be great if we could get 10 organizations to team up on something like that," said Stephen Grinnel, another LGR member. "That way, if one group suddenly had to back out or cut its funding, that couldn't kill it."

That, however, is a long-range goal that's largely beyond the power of this LGR class. For now, the top priority is improving the lines of communication, and Tuesday at the Heintz Center, LGR will host a Community Forum on Youth Homelessness.

A panel of experts from the school district, county, state and federal level will discuss the key issues and respond to questions from the audience. Teens will give first-hand accounts of their experiences with homelessness, and groups and organizations will be invited to share their ideas of how to deal with this growing problem.

We hope this forum is well-attended, provokes thoughtful dialogue and produces tangible, long-lasting results. In a community that enjoys such incredible prosperity, it's almost unthinkable that hundreds of teenagers don't know how they'll get their next meal, where they'll sleep or when they'll have a chance to wash their clothes.

If we truly believe that our children are our future, we can't sit idly by.

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