Union County Youth Shelter Offers Options To At-Risk And Troubled Youth

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ELIZABETH – A jigsaw puzzle sits half-finished upon the table within the Union County Youth Shelter. On any given day four young people at crucial points in their adolescence try to fit the pieces of their lives into a picture that offers a brighter future than the one they faced when entering the facility.

They come to the shelter from alternate paths. Some are referred by the Family Crisis Intervention Unit of the Union County Youth Services Bureau. Others are ordered to the shelter by the juvenile justice system rather than being sent to the Union County Juvenile Detention Center.

All the youths who come want to be there, some more so than others. All have problems and believe being in the shelter will help – although again, some more than others.

Sadiel is a 16-year-old who has been at the shelter for 20 days. He was picked up in violation of probation after leaving school, a requirement after an earlier arrest. He wants to finish high school and play football for Ohio State University while earning a degree in business.

“That’s if I’m not locked up,” he said.

Joseph, a 17-year-old, has been at the shelter for 65 days. He also is in violation of probation after a number of earlier mistakes. He hopes to finish trade school and start his own plumbing business.

“(The shelter) keeps me out of trouble for the most part,” Joseph said. “But honestly, I think I’m better off on my own. I already planned my future as long as I stick with school.”

Despite such occasional doubt and stubbornness, their time at the shelter is making a difference, according to Julia Leftwich, a director at Community Access Unlimited (CAU), which runs the shelter for Union County.

“Many will see they’re being given a second chance,” she said. “The counselors will try to get them to see how the decisions they made got them here and how they have to make better decisions. The hope is they will go home and implement the skills they have learned here.”

CAU has been running the Union County Youth Shelter since 2006. The facility serves as transitional housing for youths aged 13-17, up to four at a time. After their stay at the shelter the youths are directed by Family Crisis or the courts into residential housing, treatment if there is a substance abuse issue, home or, if deemed necessary by the court, the Union County Juvenile Detention Center.

While at the shelter a staff of 13 plus a teacher provide independent living skills, counseling, on-site schooling by a state-certified teacher or at the youth’s home school, family counseling and, if necessary, intervention.

CAU is the ideal human services organization to run the shelter, according to Tanya Johnson, senior assistant executive director of youth services at the agency. CAU serves people with disabilities and at-risk youth, providing housing support and life-skills training to enable them to live independently in the community.

“We already were in the business of helping children with shelter and training,” Johnson said. “We also run dozens of programs and own more than 200 residential properties throughout Union County so we know how to run a shelter and provide the services these young people require.”

The Union County courts agree. In a letter praising CAU’s operation of the shelter, Superior Court Judge Robert Kirsch stated, “In Union County there is a critical need for this facility, and the work of the Youth Shelter contributes greatly to enabling the otherwise vulnerable juveniles in (the court’s) care to lead independent lives and be productive members of society.”

There are serious hurdles the youths themselves must clear before that goal is achieved.

“I got anger issues,” Sadiel said. “My mom and my dad, I get it from both of them. They’re tough people. I take it out on other people… I just got street issues. If I feel disrespected I act in a bad way which causes (me) to hurt people.”

“I got anger issues,” Joseph echoed. “I got bipolar disorder. I was in Trinitas for (attempting) suicide. My dad said I tried to hurt myself (but) that was a bold-faced lie. They diagnosed me for schizophrenia. They put me on pills and that messed me up.”

Yet Leftwich and Johnson see the youths living at the shelter making progress toward a more promising future. When pressed, Joseph and Sadiel agree.

“I learned patience.” Joseph said. “I learned how to use my time to my advantage. I learned how to deal with people in general. I learned how to share things, because I’m not really big in sharing. I let some good colors show out.”

“This place helps me think about the bad things I did and the good things I did,” Sadiel said. “I think about home and being detained and incarcerated and being away from the community and that’s not good for me. I think about being on the streets and being around people I know are bad for me. It’s a good thing the judge sent me here.

“I actually like it. When I got here I thought I was going to run away. But I like it. Sometimes I like it here better than being home. I’m around people I can talk to…The staff, they cool your head.”

Tomorrow: A look at the benefits of the shelter to the community.

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