Orange County, with its beaches and nice weather, is much more than a spot for tourists. It has become a national magnet for homeless teens. Beaches are an attractive place for teens to “crash” – the coastline provides a place to hang out and sleep, working bathrooms, good weather and the beauty of the ocean.
The problem of homeless teens has become so big that, according to the Orange County Department of Education, approximately 30,000 local children were homeless or living in substandard conditions during the 2013-14 school year. This includes children who live “doubled up” with other families in small apartments or kids who live with their parents in motels, vehicles or campsites.
The most vulnerable of these kids are runaways, teens who are victims of sex trafficking, and teens who have been kicked out, who are “couch hopping” at friends’ homes or whose parents have “moved on.”
For the past decade, the Huntington Beach Youth Shelter has given many of these homeless kids a safe place to live, heal and learn the skills they need to succeed.
“It’s striking how many kids have no support network,” said Elsa Greenfield, director of the shelter. “We are here for them at their most difficult and trying time.”
This year, the Huntington Beach Youth Shelter is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its reopening. The shelter is operated by Community Service Programs Inc., an Orange County nonprofit dedicated to helping crime victims, homeless youths and at-risk communities.
But the shelter does much more than provide a roof and a bed.
“We help these kids learn the skills they need to stay safe, move forward and develop their potential,” Greenfield said. “We teach them to feel successful.”
The shelter’s primary goals are to put families safely back together and keep teens out of institutions.
“The typical kid we see is low-income, suffering from depression and may be experimenting with drugs,” Greenfield said. “These kids need a support system. We give that to them.”
The shelter is located in a historic home adjacent to the Huntington Beach Central Library and the city’s Central Park. The house, which once belonged to the Chevron plant next door, is an oasis for kids ages 11-17 who may have never known structure and routine or any type of therapeutic help.
A park-like atmosphere surrounds the house. But the highlight for kids and visitors to the shelter is the line of “graduation stones” that borders the walkway. Each of the decorated stones is handmade and signed by a graduate of the program.
The house can hold up to 12 kids at a time, many of them referred to the shelter by police, hospitals, community centers or schools. Some are runaways, while others are LGBT teens who were kicked out of their homes by parents or guardians who could not accept their sexuality.
Hundreds of graduates
Since the shelter’s reopening in 2006, more than 1,200 kids have graduated from the program, and the facility has never closed.
Like the population of Orange County, the kids who live at the Huntington Beach Youth Shelter come from diverse backgrounds. There are slightly more girls than boys, and the average age of residents hovers at 15. The Huntington Beach shelter is one of the few local facilities that take kids as young as 11.
All end up at the shelter because they have nowhere else to turn. Runaways live with kids who are victims of bullying or who have parents in jail. Teens who have witnessed murders bunk with kids trying to escape gang life.
At the shelter, residents find the stability, boundaries and support they didn’t have on the streets or at home.
Daily life is structured. There is no television during the week. Mornings are spent working on school assignments with a dedicated credentialed teacher. The kids spend afternoons working on life skills with case workers, therapists, staff members and volunteers.
All meals are eaten together at the communal table, and every resident has chores, including helping with cooking and cleaning.
Food menus for the month are posted in the kitchen. Knowing what they are going to eat far in advance gives residents – many of whom have gone hungry in the past – peace of mind.
“A lot of the kids here have never had a family meal,” Greenfield said. “Within a few days those meals become the most memorable and important part of their stay here.”
Although computer and gaming time is limited and must be “earned” by the kids, the house is full of activity. Local volunteers provide free ukulele lessons, and each kid is lent a ukulele to play. On any given afternoon, the house is full of the sounds of kids practicing. If kids show commitment, Greenfield said, they are allowed to keep the instrument after they graduate from the program.
Board games stock the shelves of the common room and keep the kids busy, interacting with each other and the staff and working on their problem-solving skills.
One of the most vital parts of the program is the intensive therapy provided to each resident. Kids attend one-on-one and group therapy sessions two to three times a week. Family therapy is also an important component.
“Some families just need a little support,” Greenfield said.
On the weekends, residents can visit their families and are coached on their life and coping skills in the home environment.
Most teens graduate from the program after about a month, although, Greenfield says, about 85 percent ask for an extension. After completing the program, approximately 90 percent of the graduates move back home. If home is not safe, staff members work to find the child a long-term, safe and stable home. The shelter also has a partnership with Greyhound to get kids to homes in areas that require extended travel.
Graduates also participate in an after-care outpatient program, where they continue to see their therapist and caseworker after moving back home. Both work with the teen to help him or her effectively tackle the issues involved in the transition back to home life.
“Moving back home isn’t easy,” Greenfield said. “We want our graduates to maintain their progress, so we advocate for their continued care.”
Teens who finish the program call it “life-changing.” Most end up finishing high school with eyes on college and careers in social services – helping other teens who are fighting depression and homelessness.
The success of the shelter during the past 10 years has been due to the dedication of the staff and volunteers, Greenfield said.
“Kids need role models,” she said. “Teens love structure and boundaries. They want people in their life that they can look up to. Our staff and volunteers provide that mentorship to every one of the kids.”
One of the volunteers loves the work so much, she decided to become a part of the staff.
Stephanie Brandt was new to Huntington Beach and looking for volunteer opportunities. She decided to try out the Huntington Beach Youth Shelter.
“I fell in love with the property and the people,” she said. “It is so serene and peaceful here, I wanted to be a part of it.”
The kids come into the shelter with serious trust issues, she said.
“We share who we are with the kids and show them we truly care,” Brandt said.
That’s especially true about the volunteers, she said, because, “volunteers are here with the kids because they want to be. Not because they have to or because they are getting a paycheck.”
After 10 months as a volunteer, Brandt felt that she had “earned her place” and applied to be a part-time staff member. After significant training and ongoing education, Brandt was hired. She, like the other 20 staff members, works shifts around the clock.
Brandt’s duties include working with the kids on coping and life skills. She and other staff members do this by helping the kids with chores, cooking, one-on-one time and group interaction.
“I want to use my skills for good and to be a positive example,” she said. “You have to want to be here and come from a very honest place to really be effective with the kids.”
While rewarding, the work isn’t easy. The shelter must be adequately staffed around the clock. While other nonprofits may be able to cut jobs or rely solely on volunteers to save money, the Huntington Beach Youth Shelter must have trained and qualified staff on site 24/7. That includes Christmas, Thanksgiving and other holidays. Staffers are on site and awake at the facility at all times.
“It’s hard to be living in a shelter during the holidays,” Greenfield said. “So even though the pay at a youth shelter isn’t great and special skills and training are required, the staff understands that the shift they work on Christmas Day has the power to change a teenager’s life.”
But the shelter also wants to make sure that kids find solutions to their issues at home before they end up at the shelter’s front door without a place to live. That’s why the Huntington Beach Youth Shelter is also dedicated to homelessness prevention.
Staff members and volunteers perform extensive outreach education to at-risk youths in the neighboring Oak View neighborhood and at local schools.
Ten Years of Success
While this year marks the tenth anniversary of the Huntington Beach Youth Shelter under the direction of CSP, the shelter originally opened in 1994. The facility was forced to close a few years later due to funding issues.
But the need for a safe place for homeless teens was still great. As the problem continued to grow, the Huntington Beach community came together and worked with the city to reopen the shelter. CSP had the resources to operate the space, and the shelter’s doors opened again in 2006.
Community support is still vital for the shelter’s continued operation, Greenfield said.
All of the furnishings in the shelter are donated, including a 50-year-old (and still going strong) sectional couch that sits in the shelter’s front room. Over the years, a local Girl Scout troop and a women’s club have raised money to have the couch recovered.
Closets in the shelter’s dorm rooms were built by local Eagle Scouts.
A local Hyatt hotel helps with landscaping, tree trimming and painting.
The shelter has also benefited from special relationships with the Angels. All of the donating organizations have realized the value of investing time and effort into local homeless youths.
“The shelter has a wonderful network of support,” Greenfield said.
The shelter raises money for operational costs through grants, individual donors and special projects. A third of its revenue comes from community and fundraising events like the annual December “Light a Light of Love” event in Huntington Beach, which includes the holiday lighting of the Huntington Beach Pier.
“Shelters are expensive to run,” Greenfield said. “But the Huntington Beach community continues to be very supportive.” The shelter also has a wish list of donations, which includes new underwear, school supplies, books and gift cards.
“Many of the kids show up with little more than the clothes on their backs,” Greenfield said. Donations to the shelter provide residents with what they need to focus on healing.
The benefits to the shelter residents are far more than a safe and dry place to sleep.
“We are a 24-hour-a-day operation that can’t afford to turn away a single kid in need,” Greenfield said. “But we are changing lives for the better every day. That’s priceless.”