Safe Harbor Support Center, teen shelter program in danger of closing

Tri-City HeraldJuly 2, 2014 

Safe Harbor

Daisy Vargas, left, shelter supervisor, and Karen Kirk-Brockman, executive director, are seen in the "hang out room" with two teens at My Friends Place. The Kennewick nonprofit is the only shelter for homeless teens in the area and is in danger of closing due to financial problems.

SARAH GORDON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Safe Harbor Support Center and its teen shelter program, My Friends Place, are in the midst of a financial crisis and are in danger of closing.

Safe Harbor provides support for children dealing with trauma, as well as outreach, support and training for families, and is halting most offerings for the summer. Leaders are deciding how many hours a day they can afford to keep the shelter open.

"We've been limping along," said Karen Kirk-Brockman, executive director. But a recent loss of more than $150,000 in revenue because of changes at the state level has hit hard, officials said.

Safe Harbor leaders are looking to raise $30,000 from the community to make it through the next few months while they work on restoring funding, they said. The Kennewick nonprofit provides critical services to some of the Tri-Cities' most vulnerable youth, leaders said.

"We're making a difference in kids' lives," said Mark Lee, president of the Safe Harbor board.

"Every day," Kirk-Brockman said.

The nonprofit's annual budget is about $400,000. It recently took a revenue hit of about $156,000 because of changes in state licensing rules and in the way a stream of funding Safe Harbor used to run trauma and parenting classes is allocated, officials said.

That funding, for efforts that help prevent substance abuse, instead will go to coalitions in east Pasco and Prosser, considered to be areas of greatest needs, Safe Harbor leaders said. Traumatic experiences create risk for substance abuse, said officials.

Safe Harbor didn't have much financial breathing room before the changes. A growing number of homeless youth are relying on My Friends Place, but the shelter hasn't been able to secure enough funding to cover costs, leaders said.

Lee said Safe Harbor hopes to recapture some of the $156,000 by contracting with the Pasco and Prosser coalitions to provide the classes and also offering them to the public. And it's working to obtain a different license to satisfy the changed requirements.

Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray visited Safe Harbor during a stop in the Tri-Cities.

She spent time talking with youth staying at the shelter and heard from a roundtable of Safe Harbor and community officials.

Darryl Banks, Benton-Franklin Juvenile Justice Center administrator, told Murray that having a stable place to live is a basic necessity for young people. "A lot of our kids don't have that. So the ability to come over here (to the shelter) and get settled down and then get connected" is valuable, he said, adding that the shelter program engages teens and helps them access positive resources.

Mary Lee Pickett, a community supporter, said awareness is starting to grow locally about the need for a place for homeless teens.

She pointed Murray to some journal entries written by teens from My Friends Place including one that read, "I honestly felt like no one cared. I'd run the streets wondering, 'What if something happened to me? Would anyone even report me missing? Would anyone even notice?' "

That teen went on to write that My Friends Place staffers "showed me they care."

Safe Harbor officials appealed to Murray for help, namely in broadening the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition of homelessness.

Benton and Franklin counties use it in allocating some local funding, and Safe Harbor leaders said many of their teens -- such as those who are spending nights on different friends' couches -- aren't meeting the definition even though they lack a steady place to live.

Murray said she's spoken with HUD officials and her understanding is "they think there's more flexibility than you've seen so far. But we will get HUD to start working with you to see if there is flexibility or not, and if there's not then we'll have to go another route."

She told the Herald she wanted to see Safe Harbor and My Friends Place for herself, noting she's worked on youth homelessness issues for years.

Several others also were at the meeting, including Benton County Commissioner Shon Small, Prosecutor Andy Miller and Chris Snapp of Richland, who's started working with My Friends Place and on his own youth organization after the murder last year of his 17-year-old son Joshua.

Small later told the Herald he hopes to see more funding secured to keep Safe Harbor operating. "We all know today's children are tomorrow's future. It's a true group effort trying to find a resolution," he said.

Safe Harbor serves hundreds of children and families a year. Its teen shelter -- the only one of its kind in southeastern Washington -- sees an average of 8 to 12 youths a night.

Safe Harbor has 16 employees total, including those who work at My Friends Place. Leaders this week are deciding on furloughs and layoffs.

During Murray's visit, she spoke with several teens staying at My Friends Place.

"It's pretty fun here," one boy told her, describing it as a safe place. "(It) has helped me a lot."

"Me, too," a girl added. She told of facing numerous challenges and obstacles, and said staffers have gone out of their way to help her get back on track, including helping her enroll in school.

"Honestly, I would not have gotten as far as I have without this place," she said.

Donations can be made online at www.gofundme.com/azmarc or via mail to 1111 N. Grant Place, Kennewick, 99336.

-- Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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