Teens in Kootenai County’s Juvenile Detention Center have told Lenaya Hogan they’d rather be in lock-up than in their chaotic or violent homes. At least in jail they have a clean place to sleep and food, they tell her.
“That’s real sad when you get into that situation,” said Hogan, program manager for Project Safe Place in North Idaho.
Since 1999, Project Safe Place has provided another alternative for those North Idaho teens.
Started in response to an increase in juvenile crime in the area, the program reaches out to youth in crisis. More than 700 communities nationwide have similar projects in place, and Spokane is joining them.
The Coeur d’Alene program offers drop-in hours three afternoons a week. As many as 20 kids visit on a typical afternoon to get help with homework, receive counseling, take part in organized activities or eat a warm meal catered by community volunteers, Hogan said.
For some teens, it’s the only meal they get all day, she said.
Project Safe Place used to offer drop-in hours five days a week and operate an overnight emergency shelter. A post-Sept. 11 decline in charitable giving forced the cutbacks, Hogan said. But the need for services has increased.
To help fill the gap, the program launched a home-host program last fall. Families provide emergency shelter to teens for up to two weeks while the Project Safe Place staff works to find a long-term solution, such as foster care or reconciliation between teens and their families.
The program also offers teens refuge at about 100 public locations – fire stations, shopping malls and other businesses. Such locations are identified by a black-and-yellow, diamond-shaped Project Safe Place sign. Employees at those sites are trained to respond when teens come to them for help, Hogan said.
Even when all those doors are locked, teens can find help around the clock by calling a phone number. Help-line volunteers will drive to any of Idaho’s five northernmost counties to help a teen in trouble, Hogan said.
More than 60 percent of the young people who seek help at the Coeur d’Alene drop-in center are victims of sexual abuse or violence, said Laurel Kelly, director of youth services for Volunteers of America, which oversees Project Safe Place in North Idaho and four youth programs in Spokane, including the Crosswalk teen homeless shelter.
Kids end up homeless for a variety of reasons, said Tinka Schaffer, development director for Children’s Village, a Coeur d’Alene facility that provides foster care, shelter care, homeless services, a crisis nursery and youth treatment services. She recently met a teenage boy kicked out of his home after telling his parents he was gay.
Runaway and homeless teens in North Idaho are overlooked or ignored, Hogan said.
“In Coeur d’Alene especially, Kootenai County and North Idaho, the community has a real hard time recognizing there is homelessness,” she said. “It’s a problem that is not super-visible because there are a lot of wooded areas. People camp out. People couch-surf.”
Finding emergency shelter for teenage boys is especially hard, Schaffer said.
Children’s Village allows boys up to age 13 at its shelter home, and many other shelters won’t take older teens as well, due to the potential risks of housing them with younger children, Schaffer said. She sometimes refers teens to Project Safe Place.
Hogan said she tries to get the word out to teens about Project Safe Place by speaking in schools and handing out keychains with the help-line number.