With strokes of three pens, the city and a Dixwell church teamed up to provide a place to sleep for for some of New Haven’s 400-plus couch-surfing homeless teens.
Officials from city government and Bethel AME Church used those pens Tuesday afternoon to sign a 15-year, $4,000-a-month lease to create a new 30,000-square-foot teen drop-in and activity center called “The Escape.”
The center — housed at Bethel’s Community Outreach Center at 654 Orchard St. near the corner of Goffe — will include a downstairs shelter for homeless teens. A recent Board of Education study found that over 420 teens in town crash on different friends’ or relatives’ couches every night because they don’t have a home. Bethel stepped up and offered to staff the shelter portion of the new Escape. The city has provided money for 10 beds; city Youth Services Director Jason Bartlett said he hopes the not-for-profit running The Escape will raise money for at least five more beds. At first the beds will be for boys; officials anticipate adding more beds and serving girls as well.
Meredith Benson (pictured), Bethel’s point person for the shelter, said she named it “The Situation” because so many young people she encountered in researching the project used that noun to describe their difficulties.
“Situations are not permanent,” she noted. “You can move from the situation you’re in to a better place.” The shelter will include help for teens to reconnect with family or find other housing, as well as to land jobs.
The city set aside $285,000 to rebuild the spacious building into The Escape, and formed the not-for-profit corporation to operate it. The Job Corps agreed to send a team to do part of the work.
Former ballrooms will become a hang-out center for 13-24-year-olds, a black-box theater, and a multi-purpose room. There’ll be a gym, upstairs classrooms for academic help, a greenhouse and community garden out back. The goal is open this coming January.
“This will be a recording studio,” Bartlett said during a tour of the premises after the signing. “Arts and crafts will be over there,” next to lockers and showers.
He described The Escape as “a safe place for teens. ... You can sit on a chair just veg and read a book or watch TV or play X-box, and no one bothers you,” while a host of activities beckon nearby if someone chooses to participate.
The city anticipates spending over $100,000 a year to operate all those activities, plus a relocation of two youth staffers to the building. It is counting on other organizations to put their own money and staff time into the operation too. Besides Bethel, the Boy Scouts, the Board of Ed, the housing authority, Common Ground High School have already signed on. The city’s talking with champion boxer Chad Dawson to operate the gym.
The center is looking for community help to run programs and fulfill a donation “wish list” ...
... as well to donate money to the not-for-profit. Project intern Jewell Molina (pictured) announced a “buy a brick” campaign, starting at $100. (Call 203-946-7130 for details on donating.)
Tuesday’s signing follows years of planning by city officials and alders elected in 2011 partly on a promise to bring teen centers back to city neighborhoods. Alders in 2012 visited a successful New York center called “The Door,” which became a model for The Escape. Click here to read about that 2012 visit. Alders Claudette Robinson-Thorpe of Beaver Hills, Sarah Eidelson of Yale, and Tyisha Walker of West River (pictured above from left at Tuesday’s signing) made that trip and then worked on The Escape plan along with evolving plans to rebuild the old Dixwell Community “Q House” and develop a citywide plan for new centers.
“For 20 years we were losing places for young people to learn and live and grow,” Mayor Toni Harp (at left in above photo applauding after the signing) said at Tuesday’s event. “We’re turning that around.”