Columbus group awarded nearly $6.1 million grant to tackle youth homelessness

Skye Vanek of Columbus was five months pregnant when she became homeless.

After her house burned down, the 21-year-old bounced between hotels, even living in her boyfriend’s car for a time. But she knew she needed a plan. She was told if she didn’t find permanent housing soon, her daughter could be taken away from her.

That’s when she discovered Huckleberry House, a Columbus shelter that provided Vanek and her daughter with a place to live and helped put her through school.

“If it wasn’t for those centers, my daughter wouldn’t be here with me,” Vanek said, choking back tears and clutching her baby to her chest at a news conference at the Columbus Foundation on Monday.

Columbus is now getting a helping hand to deal with the youth homelessness crisis for people like Vanek.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the Community Shelter Board of Columbus a total of nearly $6.1 million Monday through its Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program. Out of the 11 communities nationwide also given grants, Columbus was awarded the second highest amount of money, behind San Diego, which received $7.94 million. A total of $43 million was disbursed.

“Young people who are victims of abuse, family conflict or aging out of foster care are especially vulnerable to homelessness,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a written statement. “We’re working with our local partners to support innovative new approaches to help young people find stable housing, break the cycle of homelessness and lead them on a path to self-sufficiency.”

The Community Shelter Board will develop a comprehensive plan in the next four to six months to address the youth homelessness crisis in Columbus. A youth advisory board, composed of people who have been affected by poverty or homelessness, will assist in formulating the plan. Programs are anticipated to begin in 2019, according to a Community Shelter Board press release.

“We are going to create a new reality for the most vulnerable members of the community,” said Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Community Shelter Board.

In 2017, more than 1,300 people ages 24 or younger were served at Columbus and Franklin County shelters — a figure Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther called “unacceptable.” More than 900 unaccompanied young people also visited Star House, a youth drop-in center in Columbus, last year.

Those numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of the entire youth homeless population, said Sara Loken, community relations director for the Community Shelter Board, since not all youths go to traditional shelters. A point-in-time count on Jan. 31 found 174 young people in that age range homeless in Columbus.

The two-year federal grant will be blended with private sector resources, including investments from the Columbus Foundation and United Way of Central Ohio. The HUD money is specifically designated for tackling youth homelessness, allowing Columbus to expand its efforts for that population in the coming months and years.

“As a great city, we have an obligation to make sure every citizen is sharing in that success story,” Ginther said. “This is our collective call to action.”

Last year, Columbus and four other cities participated in a 100-day challenge to speed up efforts to end youth homelessness. That effort helped with the realization that Columbus needed to do more with prevention and programming, Loken said. She also said it helped strengthen the group’s HUD application.

Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on July 16, 2018.

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