homeless and foster youth

New “412 Youth Zone” offers a central hub for homeless and foster youth

By the end of this month, Pittsburgh will have a central place for homeless and youth aging out of foster care to go that addresses their needs: the newly named 412 Youth Zone.

The number of young people in the county who fit into this group is larger than many realize. A recent Allegheny County Dept. of Human Services report estimates that about 240 young people, from age 18 to 24, are living on the street. Adding in other populations the Center would serve, such as current and former foster youth, the number grows to about 1,500 young people.

When young adults in foster care reach 21, they “age out” of the child welfare system, losing many of the benefits that go with it. Without a permanent home, these young people are at higher risk for unemployment, unintended pregnancy and homelessness. According to Healthcare for the Homeless, 25 percent of young people are homeless for at least one night within four years of exiting foster care.

And youth transitioning out of the foster care system aren’t the only young people at risk for homelessness. Up to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and have encountered rejection from their families. Other paths to homelessness include abusive home situations, poverty and the death or illness of a parent.

To address the needs of this population, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services selected Auberle, a McKeesport-based social services agency, to run a drop-in center to help young adults, age 16 through 24, transition to independent living. In late December, that center—the 412 Youth Zone—is slated to open in the Wood Street Commons downtown, near the intersection of Wood Street and Third Avenue.

By consolidating services in a “one-stop shop,” the Center will eliminate redundancies and serve this group better, according to JoAnn Heffron-Hannah, transition program manager for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

The 13,000 square foot space will feature amenities including a full kitchen, room for family-style meals, computers, common areas, washers, dryers and showers. On-site medical and behavioral health services, tutoring, employment coaching and childcare, which will help youth make the most of their time at the 412 Youth Zone. There will be recreational opportunities as well, including a fitness room and partnership with the YWCA.

Young people the Center will serve helped determine specific services and even the look and feel of the space.

“They have played major roles in designing the space and even selecting furniture, says Auberle CEO John Lydon. “All of the artwork will be from this talented group.”

The hope is that buy-in from homeless youth and other stakeholders will contribute to the Center’s success.

“This input is critical in designing programs that will draw youth into the 412 Youth Zone and successfully engage them in services,” Heffron-Hannah adds.

Among other backers, PPG has provided expertise and paint, helping select colors that impact mood; BNY Mellon is assisting with technology upgrades and job training; and Dr. Liz Miller, chief of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital, has volunteered to coordinate medical services.

The Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF) will partner with Auberle to offer educational programs at the Youth Zone. Laura Saulle, Assistant Executive Director of HCEF, says the Center is highly anticipated in the homeless community. “Right now, services for this population are really fragmented,” she adds. “It will be wonderful to have the Center, which is following best practices gathered from all over the country.”

Lydon agrees. “The 412 Youth Zone is built on the idea that by having youth at a central location, they can access whatever services they need at one place.”

Lydon sees the program as a natural extension of the agency’s 16-program continuum of care, which currently offers three group living programs for young men and women. Auberle is also certified by the Sanctuary Institute, which helps organizations offer the specialized care needed by populations who have undergone trauma, such as homeless and at-risk youth.

Auberle has a long history of successful collaboration with other community groups—including HCEF and Healthcare for the Homeless—allowing the 412 Youth Zone to evolve in order to respond to the needs of those it serves using national benchmarks.

“These kids have so many challenges that put them behind the 8-ball, often through no fault of their own,” says Heffron-Hannah. “That’s why this program is important. It will address so many of their needs.”