By Anthony Rodriguez
College of Education and Human Ecology, The Ohio State University
James Malone remembers his one-and-a-half years on the streets like it was yesterday. “It was constantly a struggle,” he said. “I didn’t know where I was going to eat, where I was going to sleep. I tried to do whatever I could to get some money and a roof over my head.”
It’s difficult for Malone to talk about this dark time in his life. You can visibly see his discomfort. His face tenses, knees bounce rapidly and hands wring. But he knows in order to help others avoid the same experience he had, he needs to share his story.
Before coming to Star House, Malone was timid. Shy. People would walk all over him. And when he was hard up for respite from an abusive relationship, Malone didn’t have a place of solace to turn to.
He was homeless at age 22.
His tough experiences living days and nights on the streets of Columbus are not uncommon for youth in similar situations.
Columbus, Ohio, at any given time, has an estimated 1,200-1,500 young people ages 14-24 experiencing homelessness. Official numbers are hard to track, partly because youth who are homeless blend so well into their surroundings – especially when they live in cities with universities.
- 34 percent of the total homeless population is under 24 years old.
- In the United States, more than 1.7 million teens experience homelessness every year.
- 80 percent of homeless youth self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to deal with the trauma and abuse they face.
- More than 50 percent of homeless young people were told by their parents or caregivers to leave or their guardians knew they were leaving and didn’t care.
Since 2004, Ohio State Professor Natasha Slesnick has worked to find a solution that would end youth homelessness. She was recruited to the university to research issues related to at-risk youth.
After arriving in Columbus, she saw homelessness among youth as an immediate issue that needed to be addressed. Others didn’t necessarily agree.
“People told me there wasn’t a homeless youth problem,” Slesnick said. “We found five homeless kids in the first hour we were out.”
The outgrowth of Slesnick’s research would lead her to a much bigger project to serve the immediate needs of homeless youth.
In 2006, Star House was born.
Just like any other student, son or daughter
Malone was a typical Ohio State student pursuing higher education but family matters required that he put his dreams on hold.
When he was able to return to school, he did so at the time he started a new relationship – a relationship that would turn abusive.
The abuse affected his ability to study and be an effective student. Malone had to drop out again.
“I always thought it was my fault that I was getting beat on,” Malone said. “After I woke up in the hospital – after being unconscious for a week with one of the worst beatings he gave me – I said I couldn’t do it anymore. I went to my mother for help but her boyfriend said ‘no.’
With no place to stay, Malone was homeless. He found shelter wherever he could. One day, while staying at the Faith Mission shelter, another homeless man told Malone about a drop-in center called Star House.
Going to Star House would change Malone’s life.
Impacting the lives of homeless youth
A break from the streets, Star House brings services to displaced youth, creating a bridge that helps get them back into mainstream society.
Helping youth as they come and as they are
Star House was created to meet the immediate needs of homeless youth. Slesnick also saw the center as a way to re-establish adult relationships with the youth and to research and test the best ways to implement treatment.
“It’s impossible to engage kids in more intensive services without first building a relationship with them,” Slesnick said. “You need a drop-in center to begin providing them these services that help get them off the street.”
For the past nine years, a century-old, 1,800 square-foot house east of The Ohio State University has served as the location where homeless youth obtain this respite.
The Star House philosophy provides services to youth with no strings attached – services such as food, showers, new or gently used clothing, washing machines and dryers to clean their clothes and computers and telephones.
Having a safe place for those who have been victimized or totally on their own – what could be more important to a city than to make sure they are fed and have services to get back on their feet?
Community-based services such as therapy, medical care, HIV/AIDS testing and help securing identification and employment are also available to youth. Star House brings in nearly 20 outside community partners to engage youth with needed services.
“We don’t fit the traditional social work model,” said Jeana Patterson, Star House program coordinator. “Through our no-strings-attached services we can start to build relationships and trust with the youth.”
That trust is of the utmost importance. Youth who need Star House are one of the most vulnerable populations worldwide. Living on the streets, in abandoned buildings or couch surfing, they are often left to manage themselves. They have been failed by adults so often that second chances would seem unthinkable.
Restoring trust for these young people is a challenge staff and volunteers say is worth pursuing.
“We want to give youth a pathway back into the community so they can have a job and a home and a productive life,” said Shauna Harrison, Star House therapist.
The work is making a difference. More and more youth are coming to Star House to get help. The number of youth served since 2011 has increased yearly with the largest number asking for help in 2014 – a 37 percent increase from 2013.
For Malone, Star House was a place he would visit as much as he could.
“I felt more normal there than I did out on the streets,” he said. “They treated me like any other person, not a piece of trash living in an alley. They made me feel like family and gave me the tools to better myself.
“Star House and the services they partner with helped lead me in the right direction where I could create the building blocks to get out of the situation I was in.”
Today, Malone is manager of a local Tim Hortons and is a leader advocating for more resources to help homeless youth. He speaks to youth at area schools sharing his story to bring awareness of homeless issues among young people.
Teens and young adults find themselves homeless or in transition for a number of reasons – escaping abuse, getting kicked out of their home or aging out of foster care are just a few.
On the streets of central Ohio, they fend for themselves. And they can be subjected to the same victimization, or worse, that they tried to flee in the first place.
Often invisible to the general population, homeless youth try to blend in and appear the same as everyone else. But their lives are difficult and can be often accompanied by alcohol and drug abuse as a way to cope with the tragedy they have faced.
Star House is an opportunity for them to come out of the shadows and get the proper help they need to turn their lives around.
We want to give the youth a pathway back into the community so they can have a job and a home and a productive life.
Briana Bagley did just that after seeing a Star House flyer at a Columbus Metropolitan Library branch. The 21-year-old received immediate help to obtain her birth certificate and identification. Staff also helped her land a job and get accepted into college.
Bagley has not had stable housing since she aged out of foster care when she turned 18. But she is making progress toward stability. With the aid of Star House, she is studying at Columbus State Community College to become a nurse.
Star House is one of the only places where adults have encouraged her to follow her dreams, Bagley said. Because of help from people such as Patterson and others at Star House, she is able to pay for her education with grants and scholarships. She aspires to transfer to The Ohio State University to complete her education. Just as important, Bagley is getting help to regain trust.
“They have helped me be more of a people person – my self-esteem is a little higher now,” Bagley said. “Slowly, but surely, my trust is growing.”
Although Bagley still has work to do to achieve her goals, she has even greater aspirations. She wants to travel abroad to help people, complete her degree, give back to Star House and finish her biography. More immediately, she wants a place to call her own.
Star House youth profile: Jacques Moss
Jacques is just like any youth with high hopes for the future. Homeless at 19, he couch-surfed with friends to get a roof over his head. When he found Star House he was able to receive the help he needed.
The solution to reaching capacity
So many youth have heard about Star House and its comprehensive services that overcrowding became a problem.
The house on North Fourth Street that has served Star House since its creation in 2006 no longer met its needs. Only 25 youth at a time could eat a hot meal, change clothes or figure out how to get their ID. With more than 70 who visit daily, the problem had to be addressed.
“It is really heartbreaking to hear that a kid has walked 10 or 15 miles, and we have to tell them they can’t come in because we are at capacity,” Harrison said.
In 2014, Star House served 724 youth who visited more than 17,000 times.
Even as more youth visited Star House, central Ohio still didn’t know much about the only drop-in center available to homeless youth.
This has changed because of help from generous volunteers such as Terry O’Connell, chair of Star House’s advisory board and a retired Time Warner Cable vice president.
O’Connell has been instrumental getting Star House in front of influential people. Those people have changed the face of what Star House is able to achieve for homeless youth.
“We have done an awful lot to introduce Star House to the community,” O’Connell said. “Once they learned of its existence, the general community is beginning to know and support the Star House initiative.”
The advocacy and support have helped secure $665,000 in funding from the State of Ohio for the last two years, allowing Star House to go from its nine-to-five hours to serving youth 24 hours a day. Funding from the state did lapse. Both Columbus and Franklin County authorized emergency support of Star House so it can maintain its 24/7 operations through at least the end of 2015.
This success also has led to securing a new place to call Star House home. Finding a 14,000-square-foot space was no easy task, but one opened just a short distance from the North Fourth location. It would require a $2 million capital campaign to purchase and renovate.
Breathing new life into Star House
Support came from public, private and corporate donors, including the City of Columbus, which donated $300,000. The tiny project with big aspirations raised $2 million in just 15 months.
“It’s been an incredible coming together of public, private foundation and corporate giving and caring,” O’Connell said. “I have never seen a community come together like they have. I think it speaks volumes about our city and our community.”
When you walk into the new space, the improvements are immediately seen. The building is more secure, has a wall of lockers for youth to store their belongings, a large community area, a quiet room and much more.
The expansive community area has a restaurant-style kitchen with flair – granite countertops, an industrial range hood, a commercial-grade refrigerator and walk-in pantry.
Staff and community partners can meet privately with youth. There’s an art room that will help accentuate therapy. A computer room features technology allowing youth to create their first resumes or take online classes. An activity room is equipped with a basketball court. And a large warehouse is available to undertake Star House’s future social enterprise initiative.
Before she knew a new Star House was coming, Bagley wished for a facility with many of the features that have become a reality.
“I hope you get a bigger place with a quiet room so I can do my work,” she said. “It’s kinda loud when calling for apartments or jobs. The noise in the background does not make it conducive to do these things.”
With a new facility, many people involved with Star House see the promise it holds. Of particular consequence is the fact that youth will no longer be turned away when they reach the front door.
“It’ll be a dramatic help to the young people in this community who I believe are a top priority to this city,” said Andrew Ginther, Columbus City Council president. “Having a safe place for those who have been victimized or totally on their own – what could be more important to a city than to make sure they are fed and have services to get back on their feet?”
Becoming a sustainable Columbus resource
When the new Star House opens in October, it will continue to integrate research and community service for homeless youth. But there will be one less thing the people who run and volunteer for Star House will worry about – space.
They can focus on Star House’s much larger vision ensuring every youth has a home and chance at a productive life.
Slesnick and Star House plan on doing this by finding permanent housing for youth and expanding on services available in its one-stop shop model. They also plan to start a social enterprise operation that gives youth skills and a paycheck as well as Star House a sustainable income.
We want Star House to have state and national relevance,” Slesnick said. “As the only research-based, drop-in center for homeless youth in the country, we want to create programs that can be replicated across the nation.”
These goals are aggressive, but critical to helping end homelessness for youth.
“The things we learn here in Columbus need to be shared across the state,” O’Connell said. “Others are doing great things too and we need to be sharing all that with each other.”
Through all this change, volunteers will continue to be a vital part of Star House. Volunteers like Brian Baker who regularly uses his professional skills to feed the youth a six-course meal once a week. And volunteers like Steve and Robin Raush who take the time to get to know and become a trustful ear for the youth at Star House.
We want Star House to have state and national relevance … to create programs that can be replicated across the nation.
Their contributions and impact go a long way to getting youth the fresh start they need.
Those at the Star House feel the importance of their work when they listen to comments from youth, Patterson said.
“You don’t always see the immediate takeaway but while I was doing a tour with volunteers, a youth said, ‘I might not have a place to sleep at night, but I’m not homeless because I have Star House.’ That’s powerful. It’s building hope.”