November is National Runaway Prevention Month. For Alice Krohn, coordinator of the local Project Safe Place, it's a month to get the word out about the diamond-shaped, yellow-and-black signs meant to reach out to at-risk youth in Tucson. Project Safe Place is run through Open Inn, a nonprofit agency that works with homeless youth and their families through shelters, life-skills classes and street outreach. Krohn says there are between 1,000 and 1,500 homeless youth in Tucson annually, and the work of Safe Place is only one facet of runaway prevention efforts aimed at keeping kids away from the dangers of street life, such as drugs and prostitution. On Saturday, Nov. 10, from 6 to 9 p.m., Project Safe Place and Open Inn will host a free event in recognition of National Runaway Prevention Month. "Home Is Where the Art Is" takes place at the Living Room, 413 E. Fifth St., with bands, fire dancing, a poetry slam, makeovers and prizes. For more information on Open Inn, call 670-9040.
When you talk about homeless youth, are these kids who are living on the streets?
Sometimes, they are kids who are homeless with their parents, (or) they are couch-surfing at a friend's house, or staying with a relative, but not permanently.
When a youth gets help through Safe Place, what are the issues that cause them to be in crisis?
Typically, the calls we get are reflective of home issues. Then there is the issue of coming out to parents, as gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual or questioning. There are step-parent issues, or there are drug issues, where the young person no longer feels safe at home. There are also the young people using drugs and the parents finally kicking them out. There are a variety of reasons why kids leave home. As far as the National Runaway Switchboard (1-800-RUNAWAY) is concerned, it frequently is about family conflict.
How does Safe Place work?
It's a national outreach program that works in runaway prevention and intervention. I am always recruiting locations to put the signs and find volunteers. What we look for are youth-friendly sites and places where youth hang out. Those that are open 24/7 are ideal. Every Sun Tran bus and Pima County library have signs, (as do) a long list of agencies and businesses. But that's what I'm looking for more than anything. When a young person is in crisis, they can just go into any businesses or agency that has the yellow-and-black sign and ask for help. The employees have been trained by me to contact Open Inn's Center for Juvenile Alternatives, which is the one facet of our agency that operates always. They relay that a person has sought help, and then one of us is dispatched to meet them at the Safe Place site and bring them back here.
When a kid comes through Safe Place for help, do you ever turn them away?
The crisis can range from, "I'm lost," to, "I'm going to kill myself if I get raped again." Anything. We never deem it not a crisis. It takes a lot of courage when you're young and scared to say, "I need help." So, we're never going to say, "Ah, that's not a big deal. We can't help you." Never happens.
How can the community be part of runaway prevention?
First, just change how they look at kids who run away. I think the public often times believes kids run away just because they want to be out from under the rules at home. It's so very rare that that's the case. Kids run for a reason. Of course, the dangers of being on the street are horrific. They can easily end up being victims of the sex industry, dropping out of school and statistically being parents earlier, being on welfare, being unemployed and being underemployed.
Are we doing enough in Tucson?
The need is always greater than the services. I think the more we educate the public on the issues our youth face, we'll see more offered in services and prevention. Homelessness and running away are not fun topics, but they are realities. When you're surviving, you're always looking over your back. It's a tough life. I've come to care deeply about the people we work with. When you hear their stories and understand where they are coming from, you can't help but care.