More than 13,000 youth experience homelessness in Minnesota annually. A decade ago, Rosie Benser was one of them.
At the time, Benser was couch surfing and struggling to finish high school. The 18-year-old was also battling chemical dependency and working multiple jobs to make ends meet.
“I dropped out of high school two or three times. I was just kind of surviving,” said Benser.
Fast forward to today and her circumstances have changed dramatically: Benser is currently a PhD student at Syracuse University and a Youth Advocate and Engagement Specialist at Avenues for Youth. Her success, she said, is due in large part to the experience Benser had as a participant in Avenue’s ConneQT program.
ConneQT houses homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and queer youth through a “host family” program that provides “culturally responsive housing within a youth's own community.” Host families are community members who apply to participate in the program. Youth can stay with host families temporarily or long term.
Benser got word of the program through her therapist and eventually wound up meeting John Larsen and Mike Stewart, who would become Benser’s host family. However, Stewart and Larsen were more than just a “host” for Benser.
“They’re my family now,” said Benser. “I feel very grateful and lucky for them. They changed the trajectory of my life.”
Benser lived with Stewart and Larsen for around eight months before attending college at Augsburg. She would return to the couple’s house during holidays and over the summer. She still sees them regularly.
Benser said the stability she received while participating in the ConneQT program allowed her to become a successful adult. Stewart and Larsen not only provided a place to stay, but also taught her how to stick to a budget and a schedule.
Avenues is providing a vital service for homeless youth in Minnesota, especially as recent data shows that LGBTQ youth make up a disproportionate number of kids without a place to stay.
Data from Wilder Research states 11% of homeless individuals in Minnesota identify as being part of LGBTQ community. In contrast, just 4% of the state’s entire population identifies as LGBTQ, the study says.
In addition to the ConneQT program, Avenues provides beds for homeless youth at its Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park Shelters. It also connects participants with organizations that can assist them in finding permanent housing, jobs and mental health support if necessary. The nonprofit also provides youth-led families with housing and support.
Larsen knew about Avenues before he became a host. He admired the organization’s work but wasn’t comfortable with the idea of housing youth right away. At first, he said, the idea of having a stranger live with him seemed “crazy.” But eventually, he changed his mind.
“My husband and I had a nice big house and an extra room, and we had lived together for a few years and we were very stable,” said Larsen. “We thought, well how could we not at this point? It was a really interesting flip flop in my life – from I could never do that, I could never have a stranger come live with me, to how could we not have a young person come live with us?”
Larsen and Stewart have hosted two youths, including Benser, since their change of heart. Larsen now refers to Benser as his “daughter.” The three enjoyed each other’s company just as other families would. Larsen fondly remembers watching episodes of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency with Benser and Stewart over cups of tea. Benser also realized her skill as a cook while living with the couple, said Larsen.
The relationship Benser developed with her host family, notwithstanding the experiences she had prior to meeting them, is something Larsen cherishes.
“What happens in the process, and some of the beauty behind the host home program, is having somebody who doesn’t have any real reason to trust people and then trust me is amazing,” said Larsen. “Rosie learned really quickly and did trust me. And that’s a beautiful, beautiful feeling and a beautiful thing to watch happen.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended much of normal life over the past year, but the need among homeless populations hasn’t changed. If anything, more people may find themselves without stable housing as the coronavirus has affected job prospects for millions of Americans.
Benser said she met with many program participants outside during the summer to stay safe. In an interview in December, she said the number of host families has gone down as worries mount about contracting the virus.
But, Benser said, the perseverance she’s seen among Avenues clients is reason to remain optimistic.
“It’s a difficult time, but the young people I work with are super resilient and very resourceful,” she said. “They have been finding their way and that’s been really amazing to see.”