For some time now, Casey Behrend has watched the number of homeless and runaway teens coming through the doors of agencies he oversees continue to rise.
In Dane County, these teens face a daunting challenge in finding a safe place to spend the night. There are no local shelters that allow teens to stay who are not accompanied by an adult.
In fact, there are only five such emergency youth shelters in Wisconsin. The two closest to Madison are in Milwaukee and they both accept kids between the ages of 11 and 17, Behrend says. Racine, Stevens Point and Menomonie near Eau Claire each have one, with those shelters accepting teens 13 to 17.
“The need has been around for a long time,” says Behrend, executive director of Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin, an organization that operates a number of services for runaway and homeless teens, including Madison’s Briarpatch on Atwood Avenue.
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, wants to help Behrend and other advocates across the state change that. She is considering a bill for the next legislative session that would increase state funding for homeless shelters aimed at teens.
“This is an invisible problem,” Taylor told the media at a Capitol news conference she called Wednesday about homeless teens. “We don’t see them on the streets in Madison.”
Taylor backed up her claim that the state needs to invest more in its youth with data that show the numbers of homeless children and children living in poverty are on the rise.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2012 Kids Count survey, roughly 20 percent of Wisconsin children now live in poverty, leading to more homeless children or children living in semi-permanent conditions.
The data for the survey were compiled by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.
Overall, the state slipped in 11 of 16 categories that rank the overall well-being of children, including health, education, economic well-being and the vitality of the families and communities in which they live.
“I hope the fact we are slipping is a wake-up call,” says Ken Taylor, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, who was at the news conference. “We need to reverse these trends.”
Local figures aren’t any more encouraging.
The number of homeless children in the Madison Metropolitan School District has been steadily rising, from 485 in the 2004-2005 academic school year to 1,157 during the last academic year, according to district figures supplied at the news conference.
Relatively few of those children are sleeping in cars or homeless shelters, however. The district reports that in the past three years, more than 60 percent of its homeless students were "doubled up" with other families; another 10-14 percent were in motels.
The emergency youth shelters that do take unaccompanied teens only allow them to stay for 15 days under state law. In addition to finding more funding for shelters, Taylor wants to extend the number of days teens can stay at the shelters from 15 to 28 days.
Many advocates, including Jani Koester, the Madison School District’s Transition Education Program resource teacher, say homeless students take months to recover academically from living either in a shelter or “couch surfing” with friends or relatives.
In support of extending the maximum shelter stay for teens, Koester says 15 days “is simply not enough time to assist every youth in getting the services and support they need.”
Numerous studies have shown that homeless children struggle socially and academically.
Carl Coccaro, a street outreach specialist at Briarpatch, an organization that serves at-risk and homeless youth, says young people who miss school do so for a variety of reasons, ranging from domestic abuse to drug and alcohol abuse to other stressors associated with being homeless.
On the days these kids miss school, “they tell me they are not mentally capable of being in school,” Coccaro says.
But Briarpatch is not an overnight shelter and was only recently able to serve kids as young as 11 because of a grant it received through the federal Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act of 2012, Coccaro says.
Behrend says with state funding, the organization would be able to build a shelter to assist these teens at night. He says he been looking for possible locations for the past year in Madison and has several locations identified along bus lines.
Will Taylor’s efforts to increase state funding be successful?
Democrats were in the minority in the Assembly this past session and that might be true in January, too. Asked at the news conference if she thinks Republicans would help her pass such a bill, Taylor said her GOP colleagues have found plenty of money for corporate tax breaks, implying they should be able to find money to help the state’s homeless teens.
A call for comment to Rep. Robin Vos, R-Burlington and co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, was not immediately returned Thursday.
“It’s time we address this problem in a serious way,” Taylor says. “These kids are falling through the cracks. By investing money now, we will save money in the long run.”