Hamline News

Homeless youth in our hometown

homeless article

Beth Holger’s goal is to make the career she built for herself obsolete, relegated to textbooks on the history of social work.

And when that happens, every homeless youth in Minnesota will be off the streets.

It is this tireless dedication that earned Holger the Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Service, an award from the McKnight Foundation.

As the State of Minnesota consultant on homeless youth issues, Holger works on policy and legislation, oversees funding for homeless youth programs, helps to develop new programs for homeless youth, and plans to end homelessness. But there is nothing bureaucratic about her professional style—and her soft-spoken manner contrasts with her intense commitment to getting young people the homes they deserve.

Just getting the kids in out of the rain (and worse) for a night might seem impossible. According to the Wilder Research Center, there are between 500–600 homeless youth on any given night in Minnesota. Over the course of a year, 22,000 youth in Minnesota become homeless and 39 percent of those are homeless six months or longer. Most of these youth are in the Twin Cities.

For all of these homeless youth there are only sixteen emergency shelter beds in Saint Paul and only forty-nine in Minneapolis, Holger said. Practically speaking, this means that teens who want to come in off the street may have to hear about an open bed from a friend who is already there—and beat the line forming outside the door. But once the youth is in the shelter, Holger said, he or she gets plugged into the continuum of services that is available from the state and nonprofit agencies and can move into long-term housing—although that is also in short supply—and go back to school.

It was while pursuing majors in political science and anthropology at Hamline that Holger found her calling, by volunteering at Simpson Shelter for homeless adults. “There were all these homeless people who were working. I’d wake them up at 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the morning so they would have time to get to their jobs…What I found in the adult shelter just maddened me and I thought that a good way to prevent homelessness was to start with homeless youth.”

While advancing rapidly at jobs with small shelters, Holger’s responsibilities grew to include non-program work that she wasn’t trained to do. So she enrolled in the nonprofit management program at Hamline’s Graduate School of Management and found the courses in accounting, human resources, and communications applicable to her work.

“I learned a lot from professors who were working in the field, like Marcia Avner and Cathy Gustafson,” she said. And she credits her master’s degree with helping her get her job at the state.

If you are looking for Holger, look on the streets. She still does her volunteer shifts each month to bring teens into the shelters. “I go out between 5:30 and 8 a.m., peak hours for homeless and runaway youth to be approached for sexual exploitation…Men coming in from the suburbs into the Cities will stop and pick someone up for a trick, and then go to work. That’s pretty much all that is out there at that time—prostitution, drug dealing—unless people are going to work. And you can tell who’s who.”

“But even if a youth says, ‘Yeah, I want to come into shelter,’ it’s hard because there are not enough spaces and they stay a shorter amount of time than needed,” Holger said. But she isn’t deterred. “If you can help them get into housing, employment, education; help with their physical and mental health; all of those things—the more likely they are to be successful as an adult.”

“I’ve been working with homeless youth for seven or eight years and now I get to see some of them grow up and reach adulthood. Not every situation ends up good, but some do,” Holger said. Take the case of the homeless sixteen-year-old she worked with. One brother was in jail; another was murdered by gang violence. Today, that boy is in college.

“I’ve learned a lot at Hamline, but I do have to say I’ve learned the most in my life and my career from the homeless youth themselves.”

By: Amy Ward