[Hpn] Welcome street kids

William Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Mon, 28 Jul 2003 07:53:08 -0400


Monday, July 28, 2003

Street kids welcomed

By DAVID HENCH, Portland Press Herald Writer

Several teenagers stand in a courtyard off Cumberland Avenue, kicking a
beanbag back and forth while others sit watching, smoking cigarettes and
playing guitar.
The scene would be common in Monument Square or Tommy's Park, two popular
hangouts in downtown Portland. But for many street teenagers, stepping into
the courtyard of Portland's new teen support center can be the first step
toward getting off the street, earning a diploma, landing a job or getting
needed counseling.
The Preble Street Teen Center opened last month in the former Casco Paper
Box Co. building, which was bought and renovated by the Preble Street
Resource Center. The social service agency is expanding its adult and
juvenile facilities through a $6 million capital campaign.
The modern teen facility includes a lounge, a kitchen, meeting rooms and
showers, as well as offices for the Preble Street Resource Center. It
replaces the cramped and inadequate space that Preble Street used in the
Chestnut Street United Methodist Church.
"We now have running hot water to our health clinic," Kristen Powell, youth
outreach coordinator, said with a smile. The last clinic was in a women's
bathroom that had only cold water, she said.
The open-air courtyard symbolizes the center's approach - give
street-involved and homeless young people a place that is welcoming,
tolerant and safe, and they become open to the help they often desperately
need. Blending the freedom of the street with a sense of belonging also
draws kids in from the sidewalk and away from the animosity and mistrust of
merchants and more mainstream residents.
The strategy and the new facility appear to be achieving those ends.
Portland's Downtown District has received far fewer youth-related complaints
from Old Port merchants than it did last year, said Executive Director Rena
Masten.
The center's staff also is seeing more young people than it did at the
former site, people who have heard positive reviews about the new center.
The staff is making more referrals to social services and returning more
teenagers to their families or to foster homes. The center also served 836
nutritious meals in June.
The comfortable and clean appointments have their own importance, said Jon
Bradley, assistant director of the Preble Street Resource Center.
"The most significant change is, if you give them a place that shows you
value them, they're more likely to value themselves," he said. "By giving
young people this space, it says that they're worth something."
Young people who routinely visit the center say they like having a place to
spend time, get a healthy meal and talk to a supportive adult.
"A lot of kids think they're just going to hang out with their friends, and
then they find they need services," said Sharon Southwick, 20, who has
visited the teen center off and on since she was 14, though she is now
living with her family.
Joshua Foster, 19, whose mother lives in the town of Norway and whose father
lives in Old Orchard Beach, said that just having a place to go is
important.
"When you're not working, there's no place to be, really. At least there are
people here," he said. "A lot of people don't realize how important it is to
be around people, and not just your family."
His friend and fellow musician Justin Michelson, 18, added: "It's also a
place where you can go and hang out and be away from everything else."
For street youths, "everything else" can be any number of obstacles: a
dysfunctional family, sexual abuse, poverty or just anxiety.
Within the center, young people can find sanctuary, at least temporarily,
and have access to city services such as health care and schooling. They can
learn job-hunting skills, get references, and get professional counseling
for the substance abuse and mental illness that many street kids fight. One
program offers young people rewards for setting goals and attaining them,
and will sometimes pay for books, schooling or art supplies.
The teen center does not recruit, but teenagers who need it tend to find
their way there, accompanying other young people they have met on the
street, said Zante Lewis, 20, who grew up on Munjoy Hill. She started
visiting the previous center regularly last year, when she was homeless. She
has an apartment now, but considers herself "street-oriented."
"Street-oriented kids means they've been hanging out a lot on the street in
their lifetime," she said.
There are no games at this teen center, no foosball table or basketball hoop
to attract neighborhood youths. The closest thing is the courtyard where
kids sometimes play hacky-sack.
The lack of toys is by design, Powell said.
"We're not a recreational facility. We're providing services," she said,
though the center does organize weekly art classes and arranges for fitness
groups at the nearby YMCA. The staff works to make sure the young people who
frequent the center are those who need it.
"We do offer a niche for those who are not making it in the system that
works for the masses," said Powell, who has worked with the Preble Street
Resource Center for the past five years. "They're not new to youth services
when they get here. They're dealing with mental health or substance abuse or
learning disabilities."
Those burdens are eased somewhat inside the nondescript brick building at
343 Cumberland Ave. At the entrance, maroon-and-white courtyard walls frame
the sky through the open ceiling.
Within another set of doors, an immaculate stainless steel kitchen lies to
one side and a handful of circular tables lies to the other. Couches
surround a lounge area. In one corner of the large, airy main room is a
client phone, which teenagers answer and then call out the name of whoever
is being sought. If they want to take the call, they can.
Crisis rooms open off the main room, private areas where young people can
receive intensive and urgent counseling. Another room contains racks of
donated clothing. The walls of that room have been brightly painted by the
young people themselves and adorned with slogans.
One reads: "You only go as fast as the people you follow."
Down a hallway are administration offices, the health clinic and the street
academy, which saw 26 young people get their high school diplomas, the most
ever for the program.
Most of the 30 to 40 people who drop in when the center is open in the
afternoon and evening are between 17 and 20. Once people reach 21, they are
no longer welcome, one way the center remains comforting and safe for the
young people it serves.
Ultimately, the new Preble Street Teen Center is a building, but advocates
say it can go a long way toward getting kids the help they need to stabilize
and, hopefully, improve their lives.
"We have a norm in this culture where we're just shooing kids aside," Powell
said, "and I think it's counterintuitive to usher kids inside and say 'Come
share this space.' "
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: dhench@pressherald.com


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