Formerly homeless teen urges support for St. Vinnie’s Youth House project at fundraising launch.
At a March 9 fundraising launch at the former Cascade Presbyterian Church in south Eugene, speakers ranging from Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis and Lane County Board Chairman Pat Farr to philanthropist/activist Tom Bowerman and St. Vincent de Paul Executive Director Terry McDonald exhorted a standing-room-only crowd to give generously to help convert the church into a complex that will provide up to two years of housing and social services to homeless high school students in the Eugene-Springfield area.
The audience warmly applauded each speaker but saved its most enthusiastic response for two formerly homeless young women who serve on the Youth Advisory Council of The 15th Night, a coalition of local organizations that has united to combat youth homelessness and that is a partner in St. Vinnie’s Youth House project.
“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,” 21-year-old Jamica said. “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. It makes me hopeful for the future girls that are in positions like I was, that they will have the St. Vincent De Paul home as an option to have a real shot at life.”
McDonald described how he was contacted nine months earlier by local neighborhood association leaders about using the former church to help the community’s growing homeless population, and he outlined the blur of activities that led to his nonprofit’s acquisition of the former church and the development of plans for the Youth House project. He also acknowledged project partners including Hosea Youth Services, the Eugene, Springfield and Bethel school districts, and The 15th Night Coalition.
Major project donors John Alvord and Bowerman cited St. Vincent de Paul’s history of applying creative, cutting-edge approaches to fighting poverty and homelessness, and urged people to support a project they hope will serve as a model for similar efforts throughout Lane County and the state. Speaking on behalf of the Barbara Bowerman Fund of the Oregon Community Fund, Bowerman announced a $50,000 challenge grant that will allow donors to double their donations to the project.
When it opens in late 2017, the facility will provide up to two years of free housing and social services to homeless high school students from local school districts in an 8,000-square-foot former church at 3350 Willamette St. In exchange, student-residents must agree to remain in school until they graduate.
Members of the Kutsinhira Cultural Arts Center, located at the nearby Village School, performed Zimbabwean music, and SVDP Public Relations Director Paul Neville noted that the musical group had been asked to play because of the center’s offer to teach music to future Youth House residents. “They’re just one of dozens of organizations and individuals in this community that have offered to help the kids who will stay at this Youth Home,” Neville said.
In late 2016, SVDP purchased the former Cascade Presbyterian Church with a $625,000 federal HOME grant awarded by the Eugene-Springfield Home Consortium. Since then the agency has conducted a private fund-raising campaign that has laid a solid foundation for the next phase. Donations to date have totaled more than $300,000 – half of the $600,000 goal for the project.
The Youth House has had strong support from the beginning from surrounding neighborhood associations, including the Southwest Hills Neighborhood Association in which it is located. “Actually, neighborhood officials were the first to contact us about this location,” Neville said. “It’s been the opposite of NIMBY,” he added, referring to the “Not in My Back Yard” response often associated with efforts to locate facilities for the homeless.
The number of high school students in the Eugene-Springfield area – and Oregon – has increased in recent years. 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. The Eugene School District had 810 homeless students enrolled during the 2015-16 school year compared with 722 the year before. The Bethel School District reported more than 524 homeless students enrolled in 2015-16 – a nearly 2 percent jump over the previous year.
On any given night in the Eugene-Springfield area an estimated 400 homeless high school students ages 16 to 18 struggle to find a place to sleep. “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 said.
“This is a drastically underserved population that has few public or private resources available to them,” Neville said, adding that atudies show that high school dropouts are six times more likely to end up in prison and three times more likely to be unemployed than those who graduate.
When the Youth House opens in December 2017, it will include a community space, kitchen, laundry, counseling office and computer lab. A resident manager will live on site, and students will be assigned a mentor who will commit to working with his or her assigned youth for at least a full year. A full-time casework services manager will help youth connect to social services and work with students to create individualized life plans.
Neville said the agency hopes that contributions will enable SVDP to complete the project without borrowing. “That would mean we can move forward more quickly with plans to replicate this model in other communities where homeless student populations are growing,” he said
Supporters can contribute on line through St. Vinnie’s secure website at www.svdp.us; mail checks designated “Youth House” to SVDP, 2890 Chad Drive, Eugene, OR 97408, or call Neville at 541 743-7121 or Paula Berry at 541 743-7144. To request a presentation about this transformative project or for more information, call 541 743-7121 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, check us out on Facebook at “SVDP Youth House” and on the Web at www.svdp.us/homeless-youth.