What started out as a dream became a reality Friday, when the first three unaccompanied youth of Rock County moved into Project 16:49’s Robin House.
Project 16:49, a local non-profit organization designed to help homeless or unaccompanied youth in Rock County, has opened its first group home for young women in Beloit, and has plans to one day open a similar house in Janesville.
The number 16:49 refers to the amount of hours and minutes between the end of the school day and when the school day starts again the next morning, and the program aims to help homeless teens during that time. The organization was formed after Rubén Burgos’ film “Sixteen Forty-Nine,” released in 2010, highlighted true stories of local youth struggling to survive on their own after school hours.
On Sunday, Burgos, Project 16:49 Executive Director Tammy DeGarmo, School District of Beloit Homeless Liaison Robin Stuht, Project 16:49 Case Manager Amy Smejkal, Resident Assistant Samantha Gaffey and intern Alissa Heiting gathered to talk about how far the movement has come.
They said the Beloit house, which is leased, can provide lodging for up to seven girls ages 18 and 19 who are still in school. It’s on the city bus line so students can have access to transportation to school or to a job. Each room has a TV, new bed and custom-sewn curtains donated by generous community members, and the house is fully stocked with non-perishables and toiletries.
Gaffey, who is also a graduation coach at Beloit Memorial High School, is living in the home and helping the girls come up with a an action plan.
“She already knows many of the girls and has established trust,” Stuht said.
The girls can stay up to 18 months if they are working toward their agreed upon life goals.
Stuht explained how youth in the homes pay 30 percent of their income as “rent” which is held in an account and returned to them upon completion of the program. The money is designed to be used toward a “nest egg” of security deposits, furniture, vehicles or other needs they have in the future in their quest to become self-sufficient. Stuht noted that the first three young women in the house already have secured part-time jobs.
In a tour of the home she showed the pantry, the communal kitchen and dining room, bathrooms and other rooms for visiting with each other.
The residents will not only be given a stable place to live, but skills to help them bridge their high school to adult years. For example, girls will be required to attend Sunday dinner meetings, perform chores and learn independent living skills through 16:49’s partnership with the Juvenile Diversion Program.
No visitors will be allowed in the home and the girls will have to show progress toward their individual goals.
Although there will be room for up to seven girls at the home, there will be a long waiting list. Stuht said it is estimated there are 60 homeless or unaccompanied youth in Beloit.
Since the program’s formation the problem of unaccompanied youth has only become worse as one in four youth are living in poverty in Beloit, according to data released by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.
“Our economy hasn’t bounced back, and the cost of living and wages hasn’t begun to catch up,” Stuht said.
Although the program serves those age 12 and up, the largest number of unaccompanied youth are age 16 to 18 who aren’t old enough to stay at homeless shelters or get their own financial assistance, Stuht said. Many of them are staying on friends’ couches or performing chores or childcare for families in exchange for a roof over their head. And sadly, some of the young women are staying with abusive boyfriends or with inappropriate men in order to survive, she said.
“There’s not enough resources to serve them or get them housed in a stable place,” Stuht said.
In addition to their lack of financial resources, Gaffey and Stuht explained how unaccompanied youth are in a reactive state, emotionally distressed, tired and distraught from the constant stress of trying to survive and hide their situation.
“A lot of them are embarrassed. They try to go around and fit in as much as possible,” Gaffey said.
With the recent school closures because of the snow, Gaffey said some of the students have been scrambling to find places to stay during the day in addition to at night.
Although some unaccompanied youth may have some caring friends to stay with at one point, their living situation can change quickly when an extra mouth to feed becomes too much for friends and families.
One of the hopes of the house experience is that the youth will be able to form bonds with each other to help support each other in the future. Project 16:49 is also working to pair homeless youth with mentors, and is working with Safe Families for Children agency to find volunteers who are willing to house students. The church-based program does not pay families for their foster care.
Stuht said a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old have been placed with local families and more families and volunteers are being sought.
Although the numbers of unaccompanied youth has increased along with poverty, Stuht said the amount of community support has also grown.
Stuht noted most of the homeless and unaccompanied youth are talented and college bound, often mature beyond their years after having to live with extreme challenges.
Gaffey said she works with 20 homeless or unaccompanied seniors at Beloit Memorial High School who are all on track to graduate despite their circumstances. All the youth need, Stuht said, is a caring adult who will stick by them.
For more information about the program or to make a donation, call DeGarmo at 608-314-5501 or go online to: www.Project1649.org.