Ask 17-year-old Alex how his family became homeless, and he has a short answer: “It was in the wake of the recession.”
Ask where he would have been without Looking Glass Community Services and he pauses, and then says: “I try not to think about that, the what-ifs.
Alex was born in Eugene to parents who had steady jobs . When the recession hit they lost their employment, and then their home. “We went from lower middle class, to poor, to homeless,” Alex says.
His parents separated. He and his younger brother stayed with their mother, who cobbled together a combination of full- and part-time jobs, but couldn’t earn enough to pay for housing. When there was enough money, the three stayed in motels. When there wasn’t, they moved from place to place, staying with relatives.
Last year, Alex’s father died, another hard blow.
Alex’s mother heard about Looking Glass — a Eugene-based non-profit agency — and, having run out of other options, she turned to it for temporary help and shelter for Alex and his brother while she moved into the Eugene Mission.
Looking Glass was founded in 1970 by a group of volunteers worried about runaway youth in Lane County. Today it is a multi-faceted organization that offers help and a hand up to thousands of homeless and at-risk youth each year, including in rural areas.
It is the only nationally accredited Runaway & Homeless Youth program in Oregon, and the only state-licensed shelter for runaway and homeless young people in the county.
Over the decades its services have grown and diversified to meet changing and increasing needs. These include an emergency shelter for homeless and runaway youth on the fringes of downtown Eugene; a 24-hour hotline; individual and family counseling, and both outpatient and residential mental health and substance abuse treatment.
A drop-in center on the edge of downtown Eugene offers food. clothing, shelter, Internet access and a place to store belongings for young people ages 16-21. Three schools offer academic courses and/or vocational training, including one that focuses on youth with emotional, neurological and/or behavioral issues.
A team of outreach workers armed with backpacks full of snacks, bottled water, socks and other necessities fans out three to four times a week to areas where homeless kids hang out, hoping to coax them to visit the drop-in center, a first step toward getting them off the streets. The aim is to connect them with services and get them into safe housing.
Looking Glass CEO Craig Opperman says the first two weeks on the streets is a critical window of opportunity for these kids. The longer they are on the streets, the more likely they are to become prey to traffickers or drug dealers or to have become part of a “street family” they are loath to leave.
There is no such thing as a typical Looking Glass client. Some are like Alex, their families have fallen on hard times and become homeless. Others have fled from physical or sexual abuse or been thrown out of their homes. Some have addiction, mental or behavioral health problems. Some are juvenile offenders, making the transition to longer-term treatment facilities or back into the community.
Whatever their needs, Looking Glass has a plan for them.
Opperman says the first goal is to reunite kids with their families, if possible, and provide whatever counseling is needed to help families stay together. A stable family is almost always better than foster care, he says.
When that’s not possible, the priorities are to make sure the young person is safe and sheltered, has the services he or she needs, and is on the path to a more stable future.
There is a 21-day limit on stays in Looking Glass’ emergency shelter. It’s meant to provide a safe place where everyone involved can figure out the next step and the young person can get whatever help they need. Looking Glass also owns a small block of apartments that provide transitional housing for a handful of clients without other options; agency employees also help clients find longer-term housing.
Looking Glass serves about 8,000 at-risk youth a year, a number of whom are struggling not just with homelessness but with addiction, the impact of physical and/or sexual abuse, unstable family lives, education deficits, mental illness or some combination thereof with an annual budget of about $11 million. About three-quarters of its funding comes from government grants or contracts, which became increasingly hard to get during the recession, with the remainder mostly coming from businesses and family foundations, most of them in Oregon.
Unlike some non-profit agencies helping the homeless, Looking Glass can’t rely mostly on volunteers for the services it provides; it requires trained professionals, including counselors, therapists, teachers, and, as of this year, a sex trafficking prevention specialist.
It would be good news if the need for Looking Glass’ services was diminishing, with fewer homeless or runaway kids in need, but it isn’t. One of the concerns of many non-profit agencies, including Looking Glass, is that critical federal funding has become increasingly hard to secure, a trend with potentially disastrous results for them and their clients.
Alex’s story has a happy ending. His mother found rental housing that the family can afford. Alex is taking college prep courses and will soon graduate from high school. He hopes to attend the University of Oregon. He originally wanted to study architecture, but his experiences have given him a new perspective. He is now considering becoming a social worker, a teacher or a psychologist who works with teenagers.
Homelessness is a problem that is not going away any time soon; young people are some of its most defenseless victims, not yet equipped to deal with the dangers and challenges of the world.
Continued — or, better yet, expanded — services will be critical not just for these agencies’ clients, but for the communities they live in, to maximize — not waste — the potential of the young people they serve. “I’m not totally sure what my future holds,” Alex says, “but I’m definitely on the track to somewhere better.”
Editor’s note: This editorial is part of a Register-Guard project examining productive responses to homelessness.