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Fundraiser planned to help fight youth homelessness, provide overnight shelter

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Volunteers get aquanted, clean up, and go over intake proceedures, at the Sisu Youth day center located at 1225 Sovereign Row in OKC.  mh
  • Volunteers get aquanted, clean up, and go over intake proceedures, at the Sisu Youth day center located at 1225 Sovereign Row in OKC. mh

Sisu Youth hopes to raise $100,000 to help combat youth homelessness in Oklahoma. The organization opened a youth day shelter in June 2014 as the first step in a more comprehensive approach to taking care of homeless young people between the ages of 15 and 24.

On Aug. 1, YogaLab, 1745 NW 16th St., in the Plaza District will host a minicarnival to raise funds for Sisu. The event will include activities for all ages, including live music, face painting and a silent auction.

“We are calling it Warm B4 Winter,” said Penny Reynolds, executive director and co-founder of Sisu. “The money raised will go to fund the Sisu Youth Overnight Shelter Project.”

Reynolds and her fiancée, Amber Richardson, started the organization together, and it has survived its first year as a volunteer-driven 501(c)3 charity. The name comes from a Finnish word that means “to have extraordinary determination and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity.”

Currently, the day shelter provides services, including clothing, food and hygiene products, to 40 young people. Case management is also provided, but with only one volunteer case manager on staff, the number cannot exceed 40 for now. Sisu also refers clients to social services agencies for education, work, housing and health care.

The next step in Sisu’s development is the overnight shelter, which a local church has offered to provide. Reynolds said she cannot reveal the name of the church, as the overnight shelter is meant to be a safe place for Sisu’s clients to spend the night. The shelter will require that Sisu be more than just volunteer-based, though.

“We want to get everything taken care of before the winter cold gets here,” Reynolds said. “The funds we raise at Warm B4 Winter will cover rent and staff at the shelter through next summer.”

Youth homelessness brings with it complications beyond adult homelessness, especially when the homeless are under 18 years old. The numbers in Oklahoma are stark, but they are also hard to quantify because the metrics are factored in a less-than-straightforward way.

According to Oklahoma State Department of Education data, more than 15,000 students were homeless in the 2013-14 school year. Those numbers are a bit deceptive when it comes to youth in need of emergency services or shelter, though. The numbers are compiled in compliance with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, and that piece of legislation has broad parameters to define homelessness.

More than 13,000 of the students counted as homeless by the Oklahoma DOE were in the “doubled up” category. These are young people (and, often, their families) who are sharing housing for a variety of reasons, including loss of permanent housing, economic hardship, abandonment or being kicked out of the parents’ house.

Those numbers are extraordinarily high, and research indicates that those young people do not do as well in school as their peers, but that degree of homelessness is quite different in terms of the relative safety of the youth and the services required.

In fact, the Point-in-Time report released by Oklahoma City Planning Department in 2015 shows that there were a total of 1,300 homeless people in Oklahoma City, counting those sheltered, unsheltered and in transitional housing, but not those who are doubled up. Of that number, 112 were unaccompanied youth.

Kim Woods, deputy director of The Homeless Alliance, said the numbers are mainly used to determine trends and don’t reflect an accurate count.

“They are meant as a snapshot,” she said. “Since many of the kids choose not to report for a variety of reasons, including misinformation about reporting, the actual number of unaccompanied minors is hard to accurately calculate. We can assume the numbers are higher than what is reported, though.”

Both Reynolds and Woods said that the numbers should not be taken as a sign that things are fine. Certain demographics — including females because of the threat of sexual violence and LGBT youth, who make up a shocking 40 percent of youth homeless — are more at risk. LGBT youth are kicked out of their parents’ homes for religious or family dynamics issues at a disproportionate rate. Children are also forced out of foster care as soon as they turn 18, even if they are not moving to a stable environment.

Youth homelessness is a problem, but the numbers indicate that programs like Sisu Youth can make a big difference.

“The numbers are not as daunting for people when you break down the categories; anyone can make a difference,” Woods said.

Sisu is providing one of only two drop-in day shelters in the city — the other is provided by Be the Change, a nonprofit. Sisu’s day shelter is open five days a week, and Reynolds said the overnight shelter will be open seven days a week if the funding is adequate to cover costs. Her passion for the issue comes from her own experience.

“I was homeless myself when I was 19 and 20,” she said. “It makes you feel invisible, and it tempts you to define who you are based on homelessness.”

To help raise funds, Plaza District businesses and local artists have donated items for the auction, and musicians and poets are donating their time. The auction will include experiences such as overnight stays at Oklahoma bed and breakfasts, and Russell Westbrook donated a signed pair of his newly released sneakers.

“We want people to come out and have a good time,” Reynolds said. “YogaLab has made the space available, and we’ll have music inside and outside, including Sherree Chamberlain. All the donations go to the overnight shelter project.”

Ultimately, Reynolds said, the goal is to help young people overcome the issues she struggled with as a homeless youth.

“Sisu wants young people to know that we see them; they are not invisible; they are not alone. Help is on the way,” Reynolds said.

Print headline: Invisible spotlight, A fundraiser for an overnight shelter is planned to help homeless youth in OKC.

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