1. Minnesota's Support Systems for Rural Homeless Youth Program

Minnesota's Support Systems for Rural Homeless Youth Program

Among homeless youth in Minnesota, Native Americans are one of three high risk populations (the others being African Americans and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and/or Questioning youth).  Native American youth make up 1% of the state’s youth population but constitute 20% of the state's homeless youth.1  Despite this disparity, there are few programs that are culturally specific to Native youth and even fewer located on any of the state's eleven Reservations.  

In 2009, Minnesota was awarded a five-year Support Systems for Rural Homeless Youth (SSRHY) Demonstration Grant from the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.    The goal of this demonstration is to help homeless and disconnected youth make better life connections that will assist their successful transition to adulthood.  The project is operated through Transitional Living Programs in rural communities and includes a heavy focus on Positive Youth Development (PYD).  The Demonstration requires that the State grantees partner and collaborate with communities and youth themselves to plan and implement these demonstration pilots. This approach has created an authentic state and local community collaborative where youth voice is essential to every stage of planning and to the on-going evaluation of the program.  Because they are rural communities, the Reservations were candidates for the SSRHY Demonstration and their inclusion helped meet a huge need for culturally specific services in the state.  

Under the grant, the Minnesota Office of Economic Opportunity partnered with two Reservations (Bois Fort and Leech Lake) and Lutheran Social Service of Brainerd.  An SSRHY Advisory Committee comprised of staff from multiple state agencies, county child welfare departments, runaway and homeless youth service providers, and staff from each Reservation was established.   Youth from rural areas who had experienced homelessness were recruited to serve on the Committee as Youth Consultants.  This committee conducted a homeless youth needs analysis as the basis for developing the SSRHY program design. 

Youth articulated that they need opportunities to get housing, to socialize in positive ways, to be involved with their communities, to develop basic life skills, and to learn about and connect to their culture.  Youth also wanted to help oversee the program and decided to continue holding quarterly SSRHY Advisory Committee meetings.  Additionally, youth decided that the project should integrate PYD into daily operations by hiring a part-time Peer Youth Worker for each of the program's three sites (Brainerd, Leech Lake and Bois Fort) who would work with the SSRHY Case Managers on things like life skills group training, PYD activities and mentoring of youth in the SSRHY program.  The three program sites offer housing for up to 18 months, individualized case management, independent living skills programming, and opportunities for youth to connect and/or re-connect with their cultural identity, such as drumming, dancing and interaction with elders.

Throughout the planning and implementation of the demonstration, the youth, staff and stakeholders have all stressed the importance of cultural awareness and cultural connections.  By combining a Positive Youth Development model of service delivery with Native cultural awareness (in this case Ojibwe culture) youth have been empowered in their identities as "band members" in addition to receiving all of the other supportive services the SSRHY Program provides.

Currently, there are 24 youth in the SSRHY program. Youth are pursuing an array of goals such as studying to be spiritual leaders, working on Ojibwe language skills, furthering their educations, seeking treatment for chemical dependency, teaching drumming and singing lessons, participating in Youth Build, and seeking long-term employment opportunities.

In a recent article for the Bois Forte News, Helen Wilke began by writing …”What is the best way to create a new program for homeless rural and Reservation youth? Ask the young people for guidance…”

Beth Holger-Ambrose, State Project Director, sums it up best:  “What we have learned from the SSRHY Demonstration, is that we should be developing and implementing youth programs in collaboration with youth and doing so in a way that is relevant to their local communities and cultures.”

For more information about the SSRHY program in Minnesota, please contact Beth Holger-Ambrose at 651-431-3823 or 651-338-6628 or

1Wilder Research, 2010