Winter is here.
Usually these words fill homeless youth with dread, but this year Stepping Stones has something new to announce that softens the harsh winds of winter.
Winter is here…but emergency housing is on the way!
Hope. And it could not come at a better time.
As the temperature drops rapidly, Stepping Stones has been a hive of activity, with visits from architects and contractors, city planning officials and representatives from local organizations who desperately want to help make sure that the homeless youth of Nashua soon have a place to stay on the coldest nights of the year. None of these visitors need to look too far at the drop-in center to find someone who will directly benefit from these plans. And no one who has been here when the drop-in center closes for the day has any confusion about the need. That is the toughest time of day, when youth who spent the day warming up in the drop-in center must once again brave the winter night.
Shaun came in the other morning with blankets wrapped so tightly around his shoulders, we did not know at first who he was. His cheeks were swollen and red and he winced as he slid his foot out of his boot. “I think I have frost-bite, again,” he said, gesturing to his big toe. When I told him to go to the mobile van and get it checked out, he did not seem very comforted. No matter what, it wouldn’t change one thing: he still doesn’t have a place to sleep tonight.
Now more than ever, homeless youth like Shaun are turning to Stepping Stones for the supplies to stay warm on the streets. Shaun came in with his own sleeping pad and a backpack filled with clothes. His only possessions. We gave him a sweatshirt and a coat, an umbrella, some gloves, a hat, and a sleeping bag. Though these donations keep Shaun warm enough to get through bitter cold nights, the experience is far from restful. With red cheeks, through chapped lips, he vented his frustrations.
What’s important to understand about Shaun is that he has a complicated past. Readers might remember his story from this summer’s One Good Day post, which recounts the time that he came in and told Kathy he wanted to get serious about his sobriety. Shaun made us all very proud that day, coming to the decision to enter recovery on his own terms; and he made us even prouder this month when he returned drug-free. Most importantly, he was proud of himself, too.
“I’m never going back,” he said of his drug use. But he says that temptation lurks everywhere when he’s not at Stepping Stones. Unfortunately, some of Shaun’s actions in his prior life still cast a shadow over his revival. On the streets of Nashua, in shelters and in other agencies, he has been haunted by people who still have memories of his old habits, people who stigmatize him, harass him, and even attempt to suck him back into the cycle of substance use. For this reason, Shaun is uncomfortable in typical shelters. He needs something more specialized to his needs.
To give him hope and comfort, I reminded Shaun that Stepping Stones is in the process of opening up an emergency shelter, and for the first time that day, his eyes lit up. “That’d be great!” he said. “Wow, I really appreciate that. People out there don’t always understand me, but I love you guys. You guys are my family.”
Shaun’s words capture the essence of why Stepping Stones is working to open up an emergency shelter program right here in the drop-in center. His feelings towards the people of Stepping Stones are more than just kind, they are emblematic of the safety and support that he feels he cannot get anywhere else. Though we know there are all kinds of wonderful people out there willing to give Shaun a chance, he has a harder time seeing things that way, at least until he has a bit more success.
Opening up an emergency shelter program right here at Stepping Stones will make it far easier for people like Shaun to succeed. It isn’t just a warm place for him to sleep at night (though obviously, that is an improvement), but a mastery-based program that will keep him moving forward. Much like the drop-in center program, every youth who participates will have goals they are working on, but with the added comfort and safety of housing, they are more likely to progress from one level to the next. Many youth, including Shaun, have struggled to stay focused on their goals without a consistent place to stay each night. With a place in our emergency shelter program, Shaun will be able to find his way to his health, education, and job milestones without the temptation of leaving town when a friend or relative offers him a temporary stay on their couch. Part of the requirements for all participants is remaining substance free, which will ensure that the environment remains a safe and positive place for those in recovery.
Not all youth in the shelter will take part in the day program, and likewise, many of the young people who use the drop-in center will not sleep here overnight, but where there is overlap, youth will participate in evening programming between the closing of the drop-in center and the opening of the emergency shelter. During this time youth will learn independent living skills such as cooking, cleaning, and managing their finances. By engaging day and night with the Stepping Stones program, youth will more efficiently make progress, while also building a stronger community connection with their peers in the program. The work they do throughout their time in emergency housing will help them be better prepared for their future as self-sufficient adults.
Most excitingly, emergency housing is just the beginning. Stepping Stones is also working to develop a transitional housing program, which is the next natural step after emergency shelter for a person exiting homelessness. That program will give the youth a space of their own–as opposed to the shared space of an emergency housing program; which will further encourage them to maintain their own living situation. In transitional housing, youth fulfill minimum requirements for jobs and/or education, so they cultivate the responsibilities of independent living in a real-world scenario that fully prepares them for the reality of living wholly on their own without assistance.
Since the City of Nashua zoning board passed our variance request, we have been moving full-steam ahead to renovate the drop-in center and the unit directly behind us to include space for emergency housing. We are waiting to finish a code summary, which will establish exactly how many young people we can save from the streets each night. Though the full project will take at least several months to complete, we are prepared to take over two drop-in center rooms and add extra beds to accommodate at least a dozen youth overnight. Though Stepping Stones aims to add more beds over time, this initial wave can ensure that youth like Shaun are off the streets before the bitterest weeks of winter in early 2023.
As eager as we are to offer emergency housing, know that many youth just like Shaun are even more anxious as they wait for our doors to open up overnight. Until then, they are quite literally out in the cold. For now, the promise of emergency shelter makes them feel warmer, but we look forward to the day that we can offer more than hope. Housing is on its way.