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Our kids on Petaluma streets

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You don’t see them very often, but for the young people living on the streets of Petaluma the future is bleak. Homeless youth are invisible to most of us, but their desperate plight was briefly yet vividly illustrated in a news story a couple years back that chronicled the short lives and premature deaths of two Petaluma brothers, Bram and Matthew Stinson.

Both suffered from depression and homelessness as teenagers following their parents’ divorce and mother’s suicide. In 2013, at the young age of 23, Bram Stinson was found hanging beneath the D Street bridge. Younger brother Mathew Stinson died a few years later of a diabetic coma while lying on his cardboard bed behind a downtown business.

Tom Gaffey is manager of the Phoenix Theater, which for many years has been a refuge for troubled teens. When I spoke with him last week, Gaffey sadly recalled the Stinson brothers and lamented the fact that too many kids like them appear headed down a similar path. Many have been abused or neglected by the adults in their lives. Some suffer from untreated mental illness, including autism. Most are no longer welcome or feel safe in their homes so strike out on their own, often as young as 13.

Resources to help these kids are scarce. Because COTS (Committee on the Shelterless), is not licensed to serve young people, the job of helping homeless youth falls to two nonprofit agencies: the Petaluma People’s Services Center and Social Advocates for Youth. SAY’s Dream Center in Santa Rosa is the only facility in Sonoma County where teens and young adults can be safely housed on a temporary or emergency basis.

Katrina Thurman, CEO of SAY, told me there are approximately 150 homeless youth in Petaluma today ranging in age from 13 to 24. Homeless teens, she says, are extremely vulnerable to sex traffickers, street gangs, drug dealers and human predators.

SAY’s street outreach team, equipped with food and toiletries, travels though Petaluma in a van every Wednesday making stops at the Phoenix Theater, COTS, high schools and the SRJC campus, which has seen a marked uptick in homeless students over the last year. But even when SAY workers are able to locate and begin building a fragile bridge of trust with these kids, not all are ready to go to the Santa Rosa shelter, which is some distance from whatever friends they might have here in Petaluma.

Elece Hempel, executive director of PPSC, whose organization works closely with SAY on the youth homeless problem, says she is hopeful that a new project currently underway locally will help them reach more kids. Thanks to volunteers from local service clubs, the Salvation Army building on South McDowell Boulevard is being refurbished to feed and provide counseling and employment services to homeless youth. Mentor Me Petaluma, which matches adult mentors with at-risk youth, is participating to help serve the younger kids. Young adult mentors are being recruited to work with their less fortunate peers, says Hempel, who hopes to have employment staffers on site regularly to serve those 18 and older.

PPSC, she says, continues providing parenting classes to adults of teens and pre-teens so they can enhance their child-rearing skills and perhaps prevent a child from leaving home in the first place.

Still, Thurman and Hempel agree on the desperate need to reach young people earlier, since living on the street can sometimes cause irreparable harm.

“It’s important for these kids to become educated on the opportunities for getting the help they need,” says Hempel, and to “learn things like how anger and rage can have very negative repercussions.”

Gaffey concurs. “I wish we would start paying more attention to these kids and get them help before they run into trouble with the police, or worse.”

Both SAY and PPSC can use monetary donations and volunteers, while Mentor Me has a waiting list of 90 kids looking for adult mentors.

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.)