Restless youth, patrons make uneasy neighbors
Standing among a group of friends who are smoking cigarettes and laughing on the front steps of the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library, Audrie Hageman notices that passers-by sometimes don’t meet her eye and that they alter their path when entering the library.
“They just don’t like our lifestyle,” she said.
Hageman is one of a loose-knit group of young people — there are about 15 regulars — that occupies the steps and sidewalk in front of the library most afternoons.
“We’re not the best influence,” she acknowledged. “A majority of us live on the streets or would rather live on the streets.”
Hageman is 18 and has no fixed address. At the time of a recent interview with the Gazette-Times, she was about seven months pregnant and was sleeping on friends’ couches, at various shelters or outside, curled up on the sidewalk or under a bush.
Although she doesn’t always know where she’ll be spending the night, she does have one place in her life that is familiar and constant — the steps of the library.
“It’s like home base,” she said.
Hageman explained that most of the group — not all of them are homeless — meet at the library because everything they need is within a one-block radius: the transit station for transportation, the library for restrooms, First Christian Church for meals, the community corrections office for meetings with probation officers and New Beginnings for rehabilitation treatment.
“It’s a place I feel comfortable,” 17-year-old Angel Hart said. Hart said that her family has not had a stable living situation since November. Sometimes she stays where her parents are staying, and sometimes she stays with a friend.
“Sometimes I’m homeless, sometimes I’m not,” she said.
Although the library steps may provide a sense of security to young people like Hart and Hageman, there is a simmering tension between library patrons and the group, which can admittedly be rowdy at times. At the same time, the group’s constant presence at the public facility also highlights a gap in the community safety net — limited resources available for homeless young adults.
Running the gantlet
Brian Corrigan, 35, lives in Philomath but used to go to the Corvallis library all the time because his young daughter liked the large children’s book selection. Now he goes to the Philomath Community Library, despite the smaller shelf space devoted to Dr. Seuss and Curious George, because he doesn’t want his 6-year-old to be exposed to the group’s vulgarity.
“They sit out there and they smoke and spit and swear,” he said. “I don’t want her to hear all of that.”
Running the gantlet of boisterous teens can be intimidating at times, Corrigan said, especially for people with kids.
“My 6-year-old daughter hears it and asks, ‘What are they saying?’ I try to explain it ... but she shouldn’t have to try and comprehend something like that,” he said.
Corrigan said he understands that some of the group are homeless and may have nowhere else to go, but he wishes there could be some sort of solution to the problem.
Hart, however, said she doesn’t understand why people would have a problem with her and her friends.
“I watch my language when there’s little kids around. We’re just sitting here and talking, and they assume we are bad,” she said. “They were young, too, and just need to loosen up about it and not be intimidated by it.”
Some passersby can be quite hostile, she added, sometimes intentionally bumping into the youths as they pass, with no apologies.
“Of course, there are going to be some knuckleheads,” she said as a boy in the group fell off his skateboard, setting off a round of loud laughter and yelling.
Library administrators have been trying to address the issue. They’ve been working with Corvallis police, the Benton County Parole and Probation Division and the Jackson Street Youth Shelter to make sure that both the community and the youths achieve what they want.
Curtis Kiefer, youth services division manager at the library, said the tensions have actually decreased over the past year.
Last spring, he said, the library would double the staff at reference desks so there would be extra people to deal with issues that arose from the homeless young adults that occurred inside the library’s walls.
“They would eat food, use loud, abusive language — just general acting out and running around,” Kiefer said.
The staff has since gotten stricter about enforcing the library’s code of conduct. Kiefer said the number of complaints has decreased and the youths loitering in front of the library aren’t breaking any laws.
“Many of them are not bad kids,” he said. “They just have no structure in their lives.”
Jennifer Chen, a lead case worker for the Jackson Street Youth Shelter, has been working with the young people at the library for the past three years. Primarily, that means making sure the teens know about the resources that the shelter offers.
The shelter serves youths ages 10 to 17 — occasionally taking in some 18-year-olds — who are homeless, runaways or in other crisis situations.
“They seem receptive to it, but they question establishment,” she said. “They’ve been independent for long enough that they don’t want to give up some of the things that they are involved in.”
The rules at the youth shelter, for example, prohibit smoking, drinking and the use of cell phones and iPods.
Those things “get in the way of what the youth are here to do,” Chen said. “We’re not a hangout. We’re here for assistance, and they need to be working toward something such as getting back to school, scheduling a GED test.”
Before she turned 18, Hageman said, she chose to hop from couch to couch instead of finding shelter at the nonprofit because of the restrictions.
“The atmosphere, I just don’t like it,” she said.
A gap for teens
Jackson Street’s executive director, Ann Craig, said some of the kids who congregate outside the library could be helped by the shelter. But she also said there’s a gap for teens who are just old enough to be considered adults but still need help in their transition to independence — a gap that homeless young adults like Hageman fall into.
“It’s a good age. It’s an exciting age of transition,” Craig said. “(But) these youth don’t, for the most part, have family support that we all need as we’re transitioning.”
She identifies the age group as typically between 18 and 24 and said that their needs can be hard to define.
“The difficulty is that people have this idea that you turn 18 and you’re an adult. They’re not children, and you can’t treat them as children, but they’re not suddenly adults,” she said. “You need more than shelter; you need guidance.”
Craig said the group at the library exemplifies a hole in the local support network for the homeless population.
To help this group, staff members at the Jackson Street Youth Shelter have a long-term plan to open a transitional living center. They have been building relationships with the young people who congregate in front of the library and plan to hold focus groups to talk about what their needs are.
The project is in its very early stages. The agency has applied for grants but has yet to secure a large chunk of funding. Shelter Director Kendra Sue Phillips is trying to raise funds locally to show that the community has bought into the idea. To launch that effort, the shelter is researching the issue locally.
“We need to be able to get statistics: how many there are there, what are their needs,” Phillips said.
Through this outreach effort, Jackson Street staff have identified at least 15 to 20 homeless youths who are underserved, and Phillips said the problem is bigger than that.
“There is a growing fad where people take in a youth (and these people) are not appropriate role models,” she said. Essentially, these teens couch-surf through living situations that don’t really foster independence and can sometimes be destructive.
“There’s more (homeless young adults) out there,” Phillips said. “We just don’t know where they are.”
The short-term solution is to provide this population with resources that address immediate needs, Phillips said.
“Youth who we have served in the past, who are 18, 19, 20, come get food, clothes, take showers, do their laundry,” she said. For shelter, however, the agency makes a lot of referrals to Community Outreach. “Some of them get in, some of them don’t.”
The Jackson Street Youth Shelter has 12 beds and Community Outreach has room for up to 70 people, serving men and women who are 18 and older as well as families.
Craig said she hopes a solution emerges quickly.
“I hope it’s sooner rather than later because we could use it right now,” she said.
For now, Hageman said she is doing fine living on couches and getting food and clothes when she needs them.
“I take pretty good care of myself,” she said.
Hageman is on the Oregon Health Plan, which covers her medical expenses and doctors’ appointments. In the coming month, she plans to get an apartment with money from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal program aimed at helping low-income families with dependent children.
“After I get settled, I’ll hopefully take it more seriously,” she said.
Emily Gillespie can be reached at 541-758-9548 or firstname.lastname@example.org.