If a van of friendly adults offering food, clothing, and shelter had approached 17-year-old Bobbi during any of the seven times she's run away, she might have trusted them.
Maybe not the first time they showed up, she said, but she might have made it to the living center at Connecting Point, 1212 Cherry St., sooner.
“If I felt that I couldn't go home or anywhere else, I definitely would have taken the opportunity. It would have let me know somebody out there cared about where I was,” Bobbi said.
With a $270,000 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant announced yesterday, Connecting Point will send vans of social workers and counselors four nights a week beginning next month to find teens like Bobbi in Lucas, Wood, and Ottawa counties.
“By being out in the community, we'll have a better ability to learn where it is the youth are that really need the help and we'll be better able to extend ourselves to them rather than waiting for them to come in,” Juanita Price, CEO of Connecting Point, said.
The social workers will visit all-night restaurants, bowling alleys, abandoned buildings, and other places where they think teens may congregate. They'll offer food, beverages, clothing, and shelter, and hand out business cards and flyers to teens who might be leery to accept the help.
Social workers in Toledo hope the project, funded for three years, will have the same success in northwest Ohio as a New York City program has had. “Our method of engagement is very low key: try to give the kids food and clothing and somebody to talk to in or out of the van,” Dolores Dereszewska, coordinator of outreach services at Covenant House in New York, said. It was one of the first agencies to put counselors in vans.
The Covenant House program began in the 1970s when vans of religious leaders and counselors met youth primarily in the East Village. As it expanded into the five boroughs, built up its mother-child services, and expanded into transitional housing and job training, social service officials and police began sending kids there. Covenant makes about 200 contacts a month with youth through the van program.
“These kids are the hardest to reach. They are certainly not into taking advantage of social service agencies if they've gotten to the point of supporting themselves by their entrepreneurial enterprises in the streets,” she said.
Ms. Price said Connecting Point counselors will aim for 10 contacts a night, but admits local social service workers don't know the extent northwest Ohio's runaway and homeless teen population.
Amy, 15, a Connecting Point resident who promises her third time running away will be the last, said she expects the program to be successful because it allows teens to choose to accept contact and initiate their entrance into a program rather than being forced into the system.
“If a counselor went out there and said they'd help them out, it'd be good,” Amy said.
Knowing that adults are receptive is important, she said, and trust can be established with their contacts on the streets. “[The counselors] are here 24-7,” she said. “So it's not like they're not going to answer the telephone.”