Leaving Home to Find Home

A few days before high school graduation, 18-year-old Kayla decided to leave home. While her classmates were packing up for college and new beginnings, Kayla had a different reason. For years her family situation had grown increasingly abusive. She felt isolated from her peers and knew her mental health was suffering. After a trusted high school teacher listened carefully to her story, he encouraged Kayla to meet with a counselor and social worker. Together they helped her recognize what she was experiencing wasn’t a safe or normal way to live.

“I finally came to the conclusion,” says Kayla, “that I needed to stand up for myself.”

She was taught if you needed something, you did it yourself. But pulling yourself up by the bootstraps at a young age isn’t easy without family support. By some estimates, 3.5 million young adults in the United States ages 18-25 will experience some form of homelessness over a 12-month period.[1] Entering adulthood without stable housing puts homeless youth, like Kayla, at increased risk for food insecurity, untreated mental health issues, and substance abuse. Luckily, she had a network of nonprofits, some of them United Way partners, available to connect her with resources that offered stability during the difficult transition out of her toxic family environment.

On the day she chose to leave, a social worker drove Kayla to the local shelter. On the way, she called her parents and let them know she wouldn’t be coming home after school. Their response, Kayla recalled later, was pretty ironic, “They said something like, ‘You can tell us where you are, or you can move out’.”

She moved into Grace House, a shelter in Grand Rapids that provides temporary housing for more than 200 people each year. Along with a private sleeping quarter, the program offers residents a structured schedule, daily meals, and job coaching. During her stay, Kayla started working with the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency (AEOA) to find a more permanent place to live. AEOA also helped her apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits so she could eventually afford food on her limited income. To navigate the complicated process of securing healthcare, Kayla worked with First Call 211 and KOOTASCA to access needed medications. Eventually, she found work at Northland Recovery Center, helping others like herself who needed resources and support during a difficult period in their lives. Last year, she started taking classes at Itasca Community College, where a psychology class inspired her to look more closely at homelessness in Minnesota.

“If we dealt with problems of sexism, racism, and homophobia,” says Kayla, “I think it would actually help with homelessness. [And] I think it would also help to have more shelters because there really aren’t a lot in Minnesota. We’re lucky to have one in Itasca County.”

During her stay at Grace House Kaylan learned some members of the community complained about the shelter when it was first proposed because “some residents didn’t want to have to look at it,” despite the essential need it filled for individuals, like herself, facing economic challenges and family issues. A 2018 study conducted by Wilder Research involving 4,279 members of the homeless population in Minnesota found 32% had been turned away from a shelter in the previous 3 months due to lack of space and 50% were on a waiting list for subsidized housing.[2]

Today Kayla lives on her own in an apartment filled with the smell of fresh cupcakes. It took a while for her to feel like the space was hers. Today it’s filled with artwork and baking supplies. “Having my own thoughts and my own decisions,” she says, “was just completely new territory. Now that I’m allowed to have an individual personality, I love expressing myself.” The sound of her new therapy cat, Moon, purring nearby, is a reminder that she isn’t alone, even with the isolation of COVID-19. She hopes to find work someday helping and supporting others, inspired by the way she received help when she needed it most.

“What other people have done for me,” says Kaylan, “I want to do for other people.”

Organizations like Grace House, KOOTASCA, and First Call for Help/211 make up a network of local nonprofits that provide support and resources for people facing homelessness, abuse, health challenges, and more. United Way invests in programs and services that are part of this network as part of their holistic impact strategy, which aims to address the varied, overlapping needs of families and individuals in the Itasca area. To learn how you can play a role in bolstering this nonprofit network, visit uwlakes.org/get-involved.


[1] “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America” by Voices of Youth Count

[2]“Characteristics and Trends among Minnesota’s Homeless Population” by Wilder Research