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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008

Milwaukee Teens Fight for Survival

“Sleeping teen” stickers raise awareness of the home

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Milwaukeeans are facing sticker shock this month.

Life-size stickers of sleeping teens are being placed around town to highlight the shortage of beds for homeless youth in the city.

The nonprofit PR company Serve Marketing launched a month-long public awareness campaign to highlight the work of Pathfinders, a social service organization offering support to Milwaukee’s homeless youth.

An estimated 400 teens are looking for a safe place to stay on any given night, a 67% increase in the past three years. But only 16 beds are available specifically for teens in the city—eight at Pathfinders and eight at Walker’s Point Youth and Family Center on the South Side.

Dan Magnuson, executive director of Pathfinders, said that teens are best served in youth-only shelters with a team of trained staff members, since shelters filled with adults can be unsafe for the young and vulnerable.

Without a safe place to stay, teens end up “couch hopping” with friends or relatives. But that doesn’t help them resolve the problems that drove them from their homes. Many of these teens have survived physical or sexual abuse and turn to providing “survival sex” to stay alive on the streets.

Because homeless teens have unique needs, Pathfinders provides trained counselors, street outreach for kids in crisis, educational support, job readiness programs, recreational opportunities, and physical and mental health services. Peer youth advocates add an important dimension to the program. “We are far more than three hot meals and a bed,” Magnuson said.

But Magnuson said the program is threatened by a funding shortage during a time when homeless shelters and food pantries are stressed. He said the PR campaign will help to raise awareness and funds so that Pathfinders can continue to provide a safe place for teens in crisis. “We want to make sure that these 16 beds are available,” Magnuson said.

Gary Mueller, founder of Serve Marketing, said that the sleeping teen stickers are being placed outside of restaurants, Marcus movie theaters, coffee shops and stores and on buses and bus shelters.

Mueller said the stickers are making an invisible crisis visible, which will hopefully spur people to act. “The sticker campaign is not in your face,” Mueller said. “You just see something out of the corner of your eye that’s out of place and it makes you want to go and investigate it. It has a real strong impact on people once they learn more about the issue.”

He said that Pathfinders is providing a life-saving service for teens in need. “They don’t just provide beds,” Mueller said. “They teach these kids what to do, how to cope, how to get back to real life. That’s the amazing part about Pathfinders. They have such an amazing success rate of getting these kids off the streets for good and back to a normal, productive life.” To learn more about Milwaukee’s homeless teen emergency and help Pathfinders, go to pathfindersmke.org.

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