The '404' offers homeless youths a lifeline in dire times
MANCHESTER - Alone in a strange city, sleeping under a bridge, Chris Willott was out of options. Fresh off a bus from Louisiana, with no friends, no food and no place to stay, for him the winter months ahead began to look like his final moments more than his future. All that changed the night he was handed a little red card promoting Child and Family Services of New Hampshire's Teen Resource Center.
"I got off the bus last Halloween, and the snowbanks were like up to my neck," Willott told a reporter at a small gathering at the resource center. "I was crashing under a bridge, in an ice storm down near the Verizon Arena. I came here and they actually helped me get clothing. I now have an apartment. I have employment. I have income. They helped me get back into schooling, with no questions asked. I slept outside in an ice storm and had fourth-degree frostbite on my feet. If it wasn't for this, I would have probably died."
Based at 99 Hanover St., the resource center has a network of staff and volunteers that stretches across the Queen City and beyond. To the many who pass by on a daily basis, there is little evidence that the glass doors and storefront-like exterior mark the spot where so many come for a fresh start in life. But talk to someone helped by the "404'' — a moniker from the days when the center was located at 404 Chestnut St. — and the power of the place becomes apparent.
"I was very suicidal before I came here, so without the 404, I am pretty sure I would have ended up killing myself," said Katie Paquette, 18, who said she was kicked out of her house by her mother at age 13.
"Some people look down on us because they think it's our choice to be homeless, but it's not our choice," Paquette said. "About a year ago, I was homeless. The 404 helped me get the confidence, helped support me emotionally, helped me keep clothes on my back when it's cold. If I have no food in my house, they help me get food. They help us get all the utilities we could possibly need and apply for the first time for food stamps. Everybody respects the 404 for what they do for us. They opened my eyes to a lot of programs that can help you."
Child and Family Services of New Hampshire is an independent, nonprofit agency dedicated to advancing the well-being of children through an array of social services designed to strengthen family life and promote community assistance. The oldest children's charitable organization in the state, Child and Family Services started in 1850 as the Manchester City Missionary Society, whose purpose was to "save the unclaimed souls of the city."
By the end of the century, it had added the distribution of donated food, clothing and fuel to its efforts, and in 1967, it changed its name to Child and Family Services. Today, CFS serves about 15,000 children and their families statewide each year. Its Runaway and Homeless Youth Program, started in 1973, offers prevention services, crisis intervention and counseling to young runaways living on the street or youth at risk of becoming homeless.
Looking to help
The center has also had an outreach program since 1996. Staff members spend about 30 hours a week walking city streets to locate homeless youths and offer them food, shelter and other services — all free of charge.
"Child and Family Services actually saw in the 1970s that there was a real gap in services for runaways and homeless youth, and that's how it started," said Erin Kelly, manager of the Street Outreach program. "We help them figure out what their goals are in life and how we can help them move towards achieving those goals."
Kelly and her team members are seeing firsthand what has become a growing problem in the state. The New Hampshire Department of Education reports that over a four-year period, the number of homeless students in the state increased by 44 percent, from 1,439 in 2006-07 to 2,573 in 2009-10 (of these, 12 percent were staying in shelters, while 2 percent said they were living "unsheltered,'' staying under bridges or in cars or tents).
"In a year's time, we have almost 1,100 kids walk through that door, and most of them have a significant abuse and trauma history," said Kelly. "They don't trust people, they don't open up to people, and you have to earn their trust. That's why we do the Street Outreach program. Sometimes it's going out and running into the same person three, four, five times before they say, 'Okay, I'm going to go check the center out.' If each one of us can make a difference to just one kid, then maybe their life is going to be different because of that."
Learning the program
Mark Crandall, an Outreach team member, said: "When I first started here, I was so gung-ho that we were going to save so many lives, all over Manchester. Everyone would get into school, and we would, like, start essentially a commune of ex-homeless youth.
"But I realized very quickly that you have to assess what needs are important to them when you meet them. What I feel would be important might not be as important to them at that point as getting a clean pair of socks is." It was through the efforts of the Street Outreach program that Willott connected with the teen center.
"I ran into an intern during their street outreaching," said Willott. "She had come down under the bridge to hand out snacks, and she said, 'Why don't you come to the center and check things out?' I did, and everyone was completely nice."
Willott said he came to New Hampshire after his girlfriend became pregnant and moved back here with her parents. He headed north from Louisiana to take a paternity test and stayed here to be nearby after determining the baby was his.
"The staff here are awesome," said Willott. "They help you with anything you need. Being from out of state, it would be hard for me to get transcripts and paperwork, but they never asked for anything like that. They just help, no questions asked. This is one of the only programs that is strictly based for younger homeless people in this state. If they can't help you, they know someone who can."
The program has a wide support network.
"We really try to have a wide array of funding sources because, that way, if one funding source dries up, we're not in a position where we're looking at closing up a whole program," said Kelly.
Funding Child and Family Services receives federal funding through the Runaway Homeless Youth Act and partial funding from the federal Family and Youth Services Bureau (which CFS applies for every three years), "There's also a wide range of charitable organizations we receive funding from as well as a mix of state and city funding," said Kelly. "We receive Emergency Shelter Grant funds from the city, and we have a great relationship with the Manchester School District, so if a student comes in and tells their guidance counselor ... 'My mom kicked me out last night and I have no place to stay,' they call us."
"It's tough to accept the help," said Zach, who asked that his last name not be used. "It's sort of a pride issue for me. I don't like to accept help, but when you really need it, you really need it, and there's nothing else you can do about it. If it wasn't for this program, I don't know where I'd be right now. Kelly has been with the center for more than five years, long enough to see her own efforts, and those of her staff, produce results.
"When I first started working, there was a young woman, a client of ours, coming here and really trying to get her life stable," said Kelly. "She ended up finishing school, getting an apartment, and worked for us as a peer staff for a while. Now she works security at the airport, and she loves her job, is really successful, and it's funny because now every time I fly out of the Manchester airport, I see her. She is happy and in a good place."
About the center staff, Kelly said: "I think it takes a certain edge to work in this field and really make it. They are really here because they love doing this and it's not just a job — that's why it works."