For the first time, homeless teens in the Tri-Cities have a place to sleep in a warm bed, do a load of laundry, eat a hot meal and know that someone cares.
Officials from Safe Harbor Crisis Nursery and My Friends Place dedicated the area's only overnight teen shelter Wednesday, after almost five years of planning and work to meet what they found was a crucial community need.
They had planned to open the shelter for overnight stays starting in January, but a $10,000 donation from Richard and Janet Gerlitz in memory of their son John, who died in April, allowed the shelter to open its doors a month early.
John Gerlitz was an honor roll student at Richland High School before graduating in 2007, but struggled with homelessness as a young adult.
"He went through some tough times as a teen," Richard Gerlitz said. "When we heard about this (shelter), we wanted in memory of John to help other kids with similar struggles."
Richard Gerlitz said before his son's death at age 22, John told him he wanted to get his life on track so he could help other homeless teens.
When his parents heard they could do something to help the My Friends Place shelter open early, they reached for their checkbook. A room in the shelter was dedicated Wednesday in honor of John.
Janet also donated some of John's clothes to the shelter.
"I wanted to do something other than take them to Goodwill," she said.
The opening of the shelter marks a major milestone since a small group of people first gathered in 2007 to research housing needs in the Tri-Cities.
Merrie Crawford, an original member of the My Friends Place board, said the group then known as the HouseRATs, or Housing Research and Action Team, found the area's largest unmet need was a place where homeless teens could spend the night.
"It became apparent the most pressing issue was the issue of youth and youth homelessness," she said.
Numbers compiled each year by local school districts count hundreds of homeless teens just in the Richland, Kennewick and Pasco school districts, and the number has been steadily growing statewide and locally for several years.
When the HouseRATs started, the Tri-Cities had shelter for adults, and children who were homeless with their mothers, at the Union Gospel Mission, but nowhere teens could drop in for a night's respite.
The only place teens on the street could go was the residential facility for at-risk youths operated by EPIC, but EPIC's shelter was designed as a secure place where police could bring runaway teens. Teens couldn't go there on their own without a police referral.
And EPIC closed in 2010 because of state budget cuts, leaving teens with no options at all except for couch surfing with friends, relatives or neighbors, or huddling someplace outdoors.
But Safe Harbor and My Friends Place moved in to fill the void. They negotiated a lease with EPIC for its vacant building on Grant Place in Kennewick -- next-door to Safe Harbor -- and started working on getting a state license to operate a teen shelter.
The shelter will house up to 16 homeless teens per night, and staff and volunteer mentors also will help teens toward long-term stability, whether that is through family reconciliation, transitional housing, job training or referrals to mental health or chemical dependency treatment.
The license was granted in July, but money still needed to be raised.
Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller swam the Columbia River from Richland to Kennewick to raise money for the shelter, and a Lawyers and Artists Ball in October raised thousands.
Cliff Brown, the My Friends Place board president, said the Gerlitz's donation put them over the top.
"But the work's not done," he told the 40 people gathered at the shelter for the dedication. "We're still going to need money and the help of all the volunteers."
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