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Friday, 11 July 2014 00:00

With a roof over their heads, formerly homeless teens focus on education, life skills

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The Robin House in Beloit is a transitional housing program for unaccompanied homeless young women from Rock County. Up to seven clients can live in the house at once while they receive support to graduate from high school, pursue further education, find a job and gain skills for eventually living independently. The Robin House in Beloit is a transitional housing program for unaccompanied homeless young women from Rock County. Up to seven clients can live in the house at once while they receive support to graduate from high school, pursue further education, find a job and gain skills for eventually living independently. Dan Plutchak/staff

MESSENGER -- Autumn recently graduated from Craig High School and now plans to attend Blackhawk Technical College to study culinary arts.

Autumn, 19, of Janesville, said that opportunity would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the help she received from Project 16:49, an organization that works with unaccompanied homeless teenagers.

“I had nothing, and I came (to Project 16:49) and now I have everything,” Autumn said. “If it wasn’t for Project 16:49, I would probably be out on the streets. I’ve lived on the streets. It’s not very conducive.”

Taylor, 18, of Beloit, also is a client of Project 16:49. She recently graduated from Beloit Memorial High School.

“If I hadn’t come (to Project 16:49), I probably wouldn’t have graduated,” Taylor said.

Autumn and Taylor are residents at Project 16:49’s Robin House in Beloit, which provides transitional housing for unaccompanied homeless females.

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Taylor is working for the summer school program at Beloit’s Hackett Elementary School this summer and plans to attend Blackhawk Technical College to possibly study child care.

Autumn and Taylor aren’t alone. Most of Project 16:49’s clients graduate from high school and go on to attend college, said Amy Smejkal, Project 16:49 casework manager.

“They’re all motivated. About 90 percent of them are of college age, and they’re all college-bound,” Smejkal said. “We currently had 17 high school graduates.”

The Robin House program,  established in January, is able to accommodate seven clients at a time. Clients are able to stay at the house for up to 18 months. They are required to complete their high school education or work on obtaining a general equivalency diploma, work to obtain permanent housing, attend regular workshop meetings and help around the house. The average age of residents is 18 to 20 years old.

“There’s a set of expectations that we go through with them that they sign and agree to go by,” said Tammy DeGarmo, executive director for Project 16:49. “They’re fully aware of what (the expectations) are. They have group meetings and they have a list of chores.”

Autumn said she is pleased with the amount of time that she is able to stay at the Robin House, as she works to obtain permanent housing.

“We all get our own rooms, and we get our own privacy,” Autumn said. “We just have to follow the guidelines. I really like how long we can stay. We can stay here 18 months, long enough for us to get ourselves back on track.”

Transportation is available so clients who are staying at Robin House may attend their home school.

“We serve youth from any Rock County school district, regardless of where their home is located,” DeGarmo said. “Transportation is provided to their home school, so they don’t have to change schools if they don’t want to. They can continue going to school where they are going.”

Residents of the Robin House must follow a curfew and are not allowed to bring any visitors to the house, but they may obtain a weekend pass to go on outings with friends and family members. The residents also are encouraged to find a job and become involved with community activities.

“They can’t have visitors here, but they’re also not trapped here alone,” DeGarmo said. “We encourage community integration and community involvement. We’re looking for different opportunities for the girls to volunteer. We have service learning projects that we plan and that they can work on in the community.”

DeGarmo said Project 16:49 is working on obtaining a transitional housing unit for young men as well.

“Half of our caseloads are males, so we’re working with both men and women, just in different ways,” DeGarmo said. “We’re working with a couple of boys on helping them get an apartment. We’re targeting to find a second location in Janesville for the young men.”

Project 16:49 informs clients about other services that are available and works with clients to help them obtain a food card, health care card or identification card, DeGarmo said.

“A lot of these kids don’t have a birth certificate or Social Security card, so we help them get that set up,” DeGarmo said. “A lot of them have never had the opportunity to learn to drive or get their driver’s license, so we help them with that.”

Clients also get help learning life skills such as cooking, money management and independent living, she said.

“We want to make sure they know about budgeting and money management and how to be a good tenant for when they are out on their own; to know what it takes to be a good renter or be on their own with cleaning around the house, cooking, grocery shopping and planning a budget,” DeGarmo said. “Those  are all very important pieces of the puzzle that we help them fill in.”

Smejkal said Project 16:49 receives most of its referrals from area school districts and from residents in the community.

“I receive more and more referrals every week. We used to receive most of our referrals from the school districts, now we’re receiving more referrals from the community,” Smejkal said. “Right now, I have between 35 to 40 students on my caseload.”

DeGarmo said most of the students who they work with become homeless because of situations that have occurred at home. Most of them are willing to improve their situation and obtain permanent housing, she added.

“The kids we work with aren’t the ones who don’t get along or who don’t want to follow the rules at home.

“There’s a history of abuse or neglect or untreated drug- or alcohol-related issues on the parents’ end,” DeGarmo said. “There’s a variety of reasons why our kids end up homeless. Sometimes it’s just an economic situation and the parents tell them to leave.”

Helping teens rise above homelessness and hopelessness is a community effort and DeGarmo said she is pleased with the support that Project 16:49 has received from local organizations and businesses.

“We are very fortunate that many community groups do fundraising benefits for us,” DeGarmo said. “Our name is attached to a lot of the groups that are out there. A lot of churches, school groups and businesses have given us a lot.

“We have social work interns from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who volunteer for us. They do a lot for the girls who stay at the Robin House and the program, but there’s always room for another volunteer.”

For more information about Project 16:49 or how you can help, go online to

project1649.org.

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