By JENNA FEAR
Homeless youth are hard to see, especially in a place as spread out as Lincoln County. Most of them are couchsurfing, leaving one unsafe environment only to find themselves in another. Some do sleep in their cars, said Kristina Gregory, school counselor at the Lincoln County School’s Ninth Grade Center, but for the most part they are just like every other teenager. At least they look that way.
“Hair in a ponytail, hoody, sweat pants, just like every teen,” Gregory said. But it’s part of her job to notice the small things that other people don’t, like when someone has been wearing the same clothes for a few days, doesn’t have money for food, hoards food in their pockets or is missing a lot of school. These can all be signs of homelessness in school-aged kids, and Gregory regularly keeps her eyes open for them.
Gregory is part of a team of three who have spearheaded the effort to build the Key Youth Center.
This facility, which is nearing completion, will be a residential facility for homeless youth in Lincoln County. Cheri Winchester, another third of the trio, said she expects that it will be able to welcome residents in early 2019.
Shiloh Werkmeister, the last woman leading the initiative, is a counselor for a private practice in Lincoln County. She said that the three women make a great team because they all have different skills that are needed in different ways.
“Kristi is great on the front lines, and Cheri is great at getting resources,” said Werkmeister. “And I’m there when someone needs to be bossed around.”
Gregory clarified that Werkmeister has the analytical brain in the group; she’s good at talking with the contractors and dealing with legal matters.
No matter who’s doing what, though, it’s clear that all three are passionate about the cause they’re working toward, and they launched the plan for the Key Youth Center into motion when it was needed most.
“The need is getting larger, and we don’t see it ending,” Werkmeister said about the lack of resources to help homeless youth in Lincoln County. “It’s getting worse.”
Numbers of homeless youth in Lincoln County have been increasing dramatically in recent years. According to the Key Youth Center website, a 2009-10 study found there were 23 homeless youth in the county; by 2015-2016, that number was at 150. Some, but not all, of this 552 percent increase can be accounted by better reporting efforts, but there are concerns the problem is still getting worse.
“There’s been a huge influx in population here in recent years, so the problems we already have increase with it,” said Werkmeister. General mental health problems have been increasing with both parents and children, Gregory said, and there is a trickle-down effect when children have parents with untreated mental illnesses, because they often experience trauma and improper care.
In the school system, Gregory said there are resources available to help those kids, but if they stop showing up to school regularly, they can’t utilize them. That’s why the Key Resource Center will be so helpful – to stabilize those kids in a place where they can get on their feet.
The Center will provide shelter for Lincoln County’s homeless youth, but it will also help give them skills they wouldn’t otherwise have learned. They will have to apply to become residents there, for example, with an interview and a lease agreement, which will prepare them for finding places to live of their own later on. Homeless youth often don’t have a chance to learn essential skills like cooking or cleaning, and the Center aims to teach kids these skills so they’ll be better prepared for life when they leave. People have already volunteered to come in and cook meals with them, Gregory said, and those meals will then feed the residents for the night.
“If they are able to get on their feet and get an apartment but they don’t keep up with it, they’ll be evicted and start back right where they started,” said Gregory.
People tend to take for granted the skills that seem to be common sense – like, as Werkmeister said, you can’t clean countertops with toilet bowl cleaner – but really, all of these little bits of know-how are learned somewhere. Cooking and cleaning aren’t things that people know how to do unless they’re taught by someone, and homeless youth often miss out on those learning opportunities.
Aside from teaching those essential life skills, the center will also help children gather a portfolio of necessary documents like their birth certificates and social security cards, which many will need help getting, and then add to that portfolio with a resume and other skills as they learn and gain experience.
The goal is to provide a long-term place where homeless youth can come to build themselves up in a stable and safe environment so that one day they can leave and become upstanding members of their community, and maybe someday they will be able to give back just as the community has given to them.
“We want the kids to know that it’s not just us, it’s the whole community wrapping their arms around them,” said Gregory. The effort to get the Key Youth Center up and running isn’t only coming from Gregory, Werkmeister and Winchester – it’s taken the time and effort of many people in the community, and it has all been volunteer effort. When the center opens, it will be staffed entirely by volunteers – many of whom are retired school teachers or people who still work in the school – who have gone through youth mental health training,
“That’s what it started with,” said Gregory. “With teachers taking kids into their own homes, which isn’t ideal, but it was the only answer for them. So this is an opportunity to help with healthy boundaries and community support.”
Toyota Bodine has sponsored a whole computer lab where kids can work on job skills and applications, and Peoples Bank & Trust Co. has offered to bring their financial management program to the Center to teach kids there how to handle money responsibly.
Old Monroe Lumber has donated supplies, and all the contract work is being done on a volunteer basis, which is why the official open date isn’t known yet.
When people in Lincoln County are in need, there will be people who jump to their aid. The Key Youth Center is a clear example of that. The three women launched this initiative because they knew the community was lacking in support for homeless youth, and they took it as their own responsibility to support their community, which they all care about deeply. Winchester and Werkmeister grew up here and went to school together, and Gregory has worked as a school counselor here for 11 years.
“I always learned that you give back to where you come from,” said Werkmeister. Her father, who is the president of Peoples Bank, always told her just that: When the community is in need, you do what you can to help. Gregory, Werkmeister and Winchester took a largely unseen problem and made it visible, making the community aware that there was a need, and Lincoln County responded with open arms and generous hearts to form a solution.