More Homeless Youth Struggle with Mental Illness: What Can We Do?

In a July 5, 2005 interview with Monica Nilsson, Community Development Director for the Bridge for Runaway Youth, she stated, […]

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In a July 5, 2005 interview with Monica Nilsson, Community Development Director for the Bridge for Runaway Youth, she stated, “It appears that the number of homeless youth, especially youth with some form of disability, is on the increase.”

Ms. Nilsson also stated, “Today, there are about 4,000 children each year who are homeless, and it is about one in ten children in the Minneapolis Public Schools.”

Ms. Nilsson further stated, “We see, fortunately, a very small percentage of people who are wheelchair bound, or who have vision loss in the shelters…So the majority of disabilities are mental health and developmental disabilities.”

How would a homeless blind youngster with mental illness, for example, know how to navigate safely around the various homeless shelters or get rehabilitation training? How would a teenager who has mental illness be safe inside and outside of a shelter for homeless people?

“I believe,” said Ms. Nilsson, “the shelters are ill-equipped to serve those populations… There are services through Hennepin County in which we can connect them to. But if a person comes to us with the label of homeless, their services are very underfunded.”

In adult shelters, Ms. Nilsson stated, “Catholic Charities in downtown Minneapolis is kind of a large warehouse type shelter—the staff-to-client ratio is one to eighty. So we have hundreds of adults sleeping on foam mats on the floor. And certainly their disabilities are not being addressed. All we, as the community, are doing is to support a place to keep the homeless out of the cold. In some cases there is food available and in some cases there is not.” In the case of a homeless youth who has diabetes, what dietary choices would he or she have? How would a youth with diabetes get medical help, if necessary?

“With youth, I think,” said Ms. Nilsson, we do a little better job than with adults in that the staff-to-client ratio is smaller and programs are often situated in a big house where it is a little more home-like. But the challenges there can be that all of our shelters in Minneapolis are not accessible and so we have to have a system to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. If we can’t serve a person, we know who can. And we have a way of making sure they get a spot there.”

The Bridge for Runaway Youth, also known as the Bridge, was founded by Sister Rita Steinhagen of the Convent of Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ) and other concerned residents of Hennepin County. A house on the West Bank was donated to Sister Rita, and she used the house for the youth she saw living on the West Bank. The Bridge is now located at 2200 Emerson Avenue South, Minneapolis.

The Bridge has grown since it was started in 1970 to include more services. According to the 2003 Charities Review Council report, the Bridge “maintains a strong base of community support. The organization provides resources and programs for youth that are at risk of running away and experiencing violence. While most of the youth that are served are still from Hennepin County, the programs and services are available to youth throughout the state and region. Programs range from one-on-one and family in-home counseling to long-term shelter stays. Resources and programs are also available for the families of these young people.”

Today, the Bridge for Runaway Youth also provides homeless youth with housing for 24 people at an apartment in the Uptown area of Minneapolis. To help, you can call (612) 377-8800. Another way to contact the Bridge is either by e-mail or to navigate their website. The Bridge e-mail address is [email protected]. The Bridge Web address is

This article is an excerpt of a much longer interview. I am grateful that Ms. Nilsson took time out of her busy day to allow me to interview her. The staff at the Bridge deserves much recognition as they do, indeed, provide valuable support to disabled and non-disabled homeless people.

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Mental Wellness