SafeZone in St. Paul gives homeless youth the tools to succeed

The mural is of a blue painted face with a red nose, and the words "stop clowning the future is one step forward". There are other words on the bottom of the mural but are not legible in this photo.
A mural inside SafeZone instructs its visitors of positive messages to encourage continued development.

“Sometimes they leave because it’s not a safe place to be or there’s a lot of conflict. Sometimes it’s that they’re 18 and they don’t want to be under someone else’s rules. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes they just don’t have that choice.” — Denise Smieja

Editor’s note: For privacy reasons, ThreeSixty Journalism is only using the first names of teenage sources in this story.

If you weren’t looking for SafeZone, you might never realize that it was there.

Tucked in the basement of a building it shares with The Black Dog Cafe and Tanpopo Noodle Shop near the St. Paul Farmers Market, its obscure location is deceiving. Last year, 1,400 young people—from 14 to 21—made 18,000 visits seeking help.

For 19-year-old Marcellous, SafeZone was a safe place to come during the years when he was bouncing between friends’ houses.

“They help you with jobs. They get you out of the cold. They feed you,” said Marcellous, who now lives with his mother on St. Paul’s east side. “They got a shower place to take showers. They put clothes on your back. They do everything that a home will do.”

The drop-in center is open from 1 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday. One cold day this winter, a few young adults milled around the honey-colored front desk, which held the sign-in sheet. Each time they come, young people record where they’ve been staying and which kind of services they need.

Near the front desk, bright posters on a bulletin board advertise SafeZone’s clinic services, like nurse practitioners and social workers. Others emphasize safe sex and the importance of consent.

SafeZone’s rules are posted on the walls, reminding the clients to respect others and the SafeZone property, as well as nearby businesses and neighbors. As the sign reads, “SafeZone is a community.”

“You need interview clothes. They give you the resources to get interview clothes. State ID. Diploma. Birth certificate. They do all the stepping stones that you need,” said Shequita, who is 21 and working part-time. “When I first came here, I didn’t have a state ID. I didn’t have a job. Now I’m moving along. I’m getting there.”

Friends referred Shequita to SafeZone three years ago, before her son was born. She came for bus tokens and was assigned to work with a case manager, Scott Cole-Hill, who helped her figure out what she needed to do to get her life back on track. In the back of SafeZone, six case managers sit at desks, helping teens and young adults set goals and find housing, training and other help they need.

“He instantly gave me a log,” Shequita said. “You got to call jobs. You got to call shelters. Once I started to do it, I was getting results.”

Denise Smieja, director of homeless youth programs for Face to Face, the St. Paul nonprofit that runs SafeZone, said the young people become homeless for a variety of reasons, including when they leave foster care at age 18 or when their families lose their housing.

“Sometimes they leave because it’s not a safe place to be or there’s a lot of conflict. Sometimes it’s that they’re 18 and they don’t want to be under someone else’s rules. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes they just don’t have that choice,” she said.

A vivid mural covering one wall of SafeZone’s main room welcomes visitors with symbols of various religions, “welcome” written in many languages and portraits of various ethnicities and cultures. On the mural’s right edge, the artist wrote goals—ranging from getting a GED to owning a house. Other inspirational sayings include, “I am black and proud,” “If you’re not real to yourself, you’re not real to others,” and “Homeless, not hopeless.”

Behind the mural are a laundry room and private bathrooms, each with a shower, sink, and toilet. A kitchen serves one hot meal and sandwiches. A bin overflows with donated jeans and jackets.

In the education center, a cheery, yellow room, Saint Paul Public School teachers work Monday through Thursday to help SafeZone clients with getting a GED, financial aid or enrolling in school. A “GED Honor Roll” lists clients who have earned diplomas.

Even more than housing, homeless young adults need jobs that will allow them to support themselves, Smieja said.

“If we had better employment training or employment programs, they could do the housing piece on their own.”