Q&A: Funding Helps Homeless Youth

James Lewis - The Link
James Lewis (Courtesy The Link)

James Lewis works at The Link, a nonprofit dedicated to helping youth and young families. Lewis specializes in helping homeless youth find housing and other resources. Lewis explained how the new legislation has helped support young people without housing. The money given to The Link has been used to reach numerous communities and provide many different programs aimed at helping young people without resources and strong support systems.

Minnesota has made much progress over the years with how it provides for the homeless, Lewis said. The Homeless Youth Act passed in 2023 nearly tripled the amount of money funding programs supporting homeless youth. Lewis said Minnesota is closer now than ever to accomplishing its goal of ending youth homelessness.

ThreeSixty also interviewed Kristy Snyder from Youthprise and Rep. Heather Keeler about their work with homeless youth.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you become involved in this work?

I do have a personal experience with homelessness. When I was really young, I was born in Milwaukee. When my family moved to Minneapolis, we were homeless for a while. Fortunately, that was the only time I’ve ever experienced homelessness. In terms of the work, I have been working with youth and family services and [people] experiencing homelessness since 2000. I’ve had a pretty good opportunity to work with mainly youth and families but also single adults.

What programs does Minnesota provide to help homeless young people and prepare them better for life?

The Homeless Youth Act funds are the most flexible funds that we have to work with in our service field, so it is the best money that we have. It allows us to be completely flexible. The definitions are really inclusive. … There’s not really a limit to who we can help. It really supports all the programming that we do in the youth service world. There’s a whole continuum of services, and this money allows us to support all of those programs.

What I’ve learned over my career is that there’s a completely different approach to adult services and youth services. We’ve worked really, really hard to extend the age of what youth is for us. For us youth is up to age 24. So ween you’re in that youth service field, you don’t just get housing, you get case management support and connections to resources. It’s just a full wraparound kind of support when you’re talking about youth who are experiencing homelessness. In the adult world, it’s a little bit more cold, and you just get a cot to sleep on or you get a bed or a unit of housing and you’re kind of out on your own to figure the rest out from there. There’s a very big difference between services for adults and services for youth and the Homeless Youth Act is responsible for a lot of that.

Why a distinction between the type of aid for adults versus the type of aid youth need?

It’s so important to have a different response. A lot of times, people who are adults experiencing homelessness, they’ve had a chance to live like they have life experience. They’ve probably had full-time employment or have had housing at one point. Their needs are a little bit different because their development is different. They’re fully aware of who they are, hopefully, if they’re healthy adult. And on the youth side, it’s unfortunately a lot of times they ended up being homeless or experiencing homelessness for circumstances that they’re not in control of … our foster care systems, our juvenile justice systems, they’re failing, and that is causing youth to be homeless. Young people are still developing. Their brain development is so important.

The reason why we want to offer so much extra support, besides just a place to lie down, is to help them continue to develop. [We want them] to be able to advocate for themselves and to be able to identify their strengths and build networks of support. Then there’s also a component of family unification that we never want to let go up. We want to make sure that they’re connected to their people who care for them.

What is the importance of this initiative to provide more flexible aid through cash handouts? 

The flexibility piece is everything. One of the biggest challenges in the work we do is the money. A lot of times it’s just restrictive on what you can do and who you can help, and that’s where the problems come up. This flexibility just allows us to be really creative.

What’s been so amazing is that, after all these years of working and advocating begging and pleading for more money, last year, we totally kicked butt. We had the biggest increase in funds that we’ve ever seen, it was just amazing … We got $30 million out of the $50 million that we asked for. Now we’re up to about $42 million every two years.

The cool part is that we are seeing a direct correlation to increase in homeless youth funds and a decrease in the amount of youth that are experiencing homelessness. We know it’s working, and we’re going to keep pushing and pushing at this until we get to a level that we think that we need to actually end youth homelessness. I’ve been doing this work for about 24 years and ending youth homelessness has always been the goal. It’s never felt like it was obtainable until now. We are really in a good place in our community.

We got a lot of new energy and support around prevention. What’s really cool is that the Homeless Youth Act funds and supports the whole continuum of services that we have. We started with prevention – we want to try and keep people from becoming homeless. If they are experiencing homelessness, we have people do street outreach. After street outreach, there’s emergency drop-in centers. And then it goes into housing options. And HYA [Homeless Youth Act] supports all of that.

María José worked with retired reporters Bill Wareham and Bob Shaw to finish her story. This story was completed at ThreeSixty’s Winter News Team: Capitol Edition in February 2024, where high school journalists covered important legislative issues, impacting Minnesota youth. Read more stories here.