EUGENE — St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County is converting a former Presbyterian Church into housing for homeless teens.
The innovative Catholic agency has been providing employment for the youths for three years, but leaders long have wanted to add housing and social services as a way to create a transformative ministry.
Youths age 16 to 18 can stay for up to two years and will pay no rent, other than being required to remain in school until they graduate. On-site staff will help residents manage addiction, get mental health help, create a resume, apply for jobs and enroll in college.
“The whole idea is to give these kids who are somehow still in school — holding on by their fingernails and the grace of God — a massive injection of security with good, clean housing and a warm family feeling,” says Paul Neville of St. Vincent de Paul. “If you get a kid through high school, it is transformative.”
Studies from Northeastern University show that high school graduates are far more likely to be employed and stay out of prison.
“I wish that when I was young and my life was in the midst of chaos and was falling apart that there would have been a place like this for me,” said 21-year-old Jamica, who preferred not to use her last name. “I believe that I would have had a fighting chance to get my high school diploma, experience safety and security, and it ultimately would have saved me from a lot of unnecessary pain, heartache and trauma.”
Plans call for the building to be ready by the end of 2017.
It’s being called the Youth House and it has won support from surrounding neighborhood associations. It was neighbors who contacted St. Vincent de Paul when the church went up for sale. Leaders of Cascade Presbyterian passed up a full-price offer from a developer to give a chance to the homeless teen project.
State officials estimate there are more than 21,000 homeless students in Oregon’s public schools, a number that has surged over the past three years.
Leaders of the three school districts in the Eugene-Springfield area say they have about 2,000 homeless youths enrolled. About 400 are in high school.
“Some of them end up couch-surfing at friends’ homes and some end up on the streets where they are vulnerable to violence, drugs and a thriving human-trafficking trade along the I-5 corridor,” Neville says.
There are many causes of teen homelessness: abuse, disagreements with parents, abandonment, lack of money. Many teens choose not to enter the foster care system. Even if they did, there are not enough foster parents in the state.
Adolescence and school are hard enough for teens from a stable home, Neville says. Add homelessness and the insecurity becomes toxic, he says.
Homeless high schoolers tend to fall through cracks in social services. No state money follows them and shelters are scarce.
A $645,000 federal block grant is helping pay for renovation of the former Cascade Presbyterian Church on the city’s south side. To start this month, the $1 million project will turn the 8,000-square-foot building into 14 small apartments, plus housing for a resident manager and offices for case management and mental health care.
“Our long-term hope is to replicate this model throughout Lane County and possibly throughout the state,” says Neville. He and Terry McDonald, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, briefed Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek on the project.
Eugene-based Hosea Youth Services, which began in 1997, will run the ministry. There will be a need for volunteers.
Neville will be reaching out to parishes to raise funds. A donation of $6,000 will support one resident for a year. Supporters can contribute at svdp.us. They also can mail checks designated “Youth House” to SVDP, 2890 Chad Drive, Eugene, OR 97408, or call Neville at 541-743-7121.