Guilford youth shelter seeks help with funding gap

by Eric Ginsburg

by Eric Ginsburg

Facing a large budget deficit, Guilford County’s only youth shelter received a much-needed boost from the county commissioners last week and is now looking to the city of Greensboro to match the contribution.

Act Together Crisis Care, an emergency shelter run by Youth Focus for children in crisis or who are homeless or runaways, lost a long-standing contract with the county department of social services and turned to the city and county to request $70,000 from each.

Commissioners voted 10-1 in support of the item after approving a juvenile justice department grant for $60,000 to Act Together earlier in the meeting, with Republican District 5 Commissioner Billy Yow as the lone dissenter on both votes.

Several people spoke at the meeting in support of Act Together’s request, including Adrienne Johnson who works with the organization through AmeriCorps.

“If I’d had such a place as Act Together to go when I was being abused and felt unsafe, what a difference that would have made in my life,” said Johnson, who became a ward of the state when she was 2 years old.

After 20 years of housing youth for social services, Act Together staff realized in late June that the department would be using a foster care program in Burlington instead, causing a $250,000 hole in the organization’s funding —45 percent of its total budget — according to Youth Focus director Chuck Hodierne.

Act Together can take 12 kids between the ages of 11 and 17 at a time, housing them for an average of 13 to 14 days before placing them elsewhere — with a family member, friend, group home, detention center, foster home or back at their home of origin with increased resources. The shelter served 219 kids last fiscal year, over 40 of whom were there more than once, and the majority of whom lived in Guilford County, program manager Kristin Weldon said.

County commission Chairman Skip Alston and Vice Chair Kirk Perkins, both Democrats, visited the facility before the vote, and both said they planned to support funding the shelter before the meeting.

“They have a great program that I think that if possible we need to keep in place,” Perkins said. “It could be a pretty

good investment for the county to have that program open. I think it’s imperative when you’re going to spend tax dollars that you actually go out there and see the facility.”

Alston said he had several questions before his visit that were adequately answered and that he would push for a vote at the meeting rather than let the item get postponed.

“Time is of the essence for them,” Alston said before the meeting. “I don’t think we have the luxury of waiting. The city and county needs a place for teens facing those situations.”

Alston said during the meeting that it makes sense to serve the youth in a more positive environment such as the shelter as an alternative to a detention center or jail down the line.

Numerous commissioners spoke in support of the item, though Democratic District 9 Commissioner Carolyn Coleman posed several questions about why the agency lost its contract with social services and Yow said Hodierne should have come before the board during its budget process and didn’t believe the organization would close without the requested funds. Some commissioners said they believed social services acted appropriately to be fiscally responsible and serve its kids but that the county should help keep the shelter afloat.

“I think this may be a much better approach than what was there before,” Democratic District 6 Commissioner Kay Cashion said. “We need to make every effort possible to help our youngsters in crisis.”

Republican District 3 Commissioner Linda Shaw struck a similar chord.

“I worry about those kids out there on the street,” Shaw said, mentioning adult predators like pedophiles, rapists and pimps. “We can’t afford to lose our young people.”

Hodierne said he understands social services’ decision and holds no resentment towards the department, but he said without funding to cover the gap, the shelter can’t survive.

“They’re feeling the financial pinch right now just like everybody else,” Hodierne said. “I will be the first to admit running a facility is expensive. I’m a taxpayer too so I applaud their efforts to do more with less [but] we can’t keep the shelter anymore now without those funds.”

The shelter has been around since 1981, before which Hodierne said homeless and runaway youth were lucky to end up at a friend’s house, often sleeping under bridges or in abandoned cars. Act Together is the only youth shelter in the county, and many nearby counties don’t have one, he said.

Hodierne said providing a space for kids in crisis to go helps lower the child abuse rate, among other issues.

“Parents call and say’ ‘Get this kid out of my house or I swear I’m going to kill him,’ or something to that affect,” he said. “You can just hear the tension in their voice.”

Weldon said the agency has seen an influx in kids coming from families with economic challenges since 2008, and that about 70 percent of cases involve mental health issues either in the youth or an immediate family member, an increase from previous years.

“Because of mental health reform, many of the services have become community based,” she said. “The mental health system has become divested. In the last three to four years, group homes have not been as prevalent as they used to be and funding to get a child in a group home is more difficult.”

Act Together offset some of the budget shortfall by making internal cuts and moving an employee from full time to part time. The shelter received a contract with the county through the juvenile crime prevention council, which administers state funds, to house certain youth instead of placing them in detention. It was also given $10,000 from a family foundation. After the cuts and increased finances the shelter still needed $140,000, which it hopes the city and county will split.

At-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter said she expects the Greensboro City Council to approve the funding request, especially after the county approved the shelter’s request. Pointing out that Act Together helps the youth with academics, transportation to school and other needs, she said she would support funding the organization.

“This takes care of our teens, one of the most vulnerable groups that needs assistance,” Abuzuaiter said. “Some of the children are coming out of very contentious or disadvantaged environments.”

The city already funds Act Together by $22,275 annually, so the agency’s request is for an additional $70,000. Hodierne said the city asked the agency to request funds from the county first, and expects the item to be put on council’s agenda soon.

“I know it’s a hard pill to swallow, but the reality is that’s what we need,” he said. “We’re running out of avenues pretty quickly. There are no more federal or state avenues for us to go down.”