A clean, well-lighted place: Drop-in center offers critical refuge for youth in need

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Jason Smith and Monique Michon, BSW, Street Outreach Manager-Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs. Photo/Chris Dugan

MANCHESTER, NH – As a former parole officer, Waypoint’s Jason Smith often dealt with the end result of what he calls “generational poor choices” where a former inmate had come from a bad family situation or upbringing.  And sadly, the longer he worked in the field, he had come across parolees from the same family – hence the “generational” part.  He said that in many instances, those who were formerly incarcerated came back into the world “worse off than they were before.”

As he neared retirement and began to contemplate his next career choices, Smith knew that he could make a greater impact by working with younger people in need and hopefully helping them achieve better outcomes.  He wound up connecting with Waypoint and joined the agency a year ago, serving as Manager of Youth Services and overseeing the organization’s youth drop-in center in downtown Manchester.

Waypoint youth drop-in center. Photo/Chris Dugan

Unassuming on the outside and tucked among office buildings and across from a shopping center on Lincoln Street, the center literally serves as a welcome port in the storm for youth in need.

“It’s a safe place where kids can get food, do laundry, access WiFi, take a shower and log onto a computer to do schoolwork or apply for jobs,” said Smith.  The Center also operates a clothing closet and provides sleeping bags and tents in some cases (author’s note – if the specter of a kid trying to sleep outside in a tent during the most recent bout of cold weather bothers you, it should.  Read on to find out how you can help.)  

The drop-in center is a place to sit and talk, or just chill. Photo/Chris Dugan

Smith added that the Center also can serve as an address for those without a place to live.  This was particularly important, he noted, for youth who had qualified for the federal stimulus funds due to the pandemic and could get their checks delivered to the Center.  There’s even an old-school phone booth for youth that don’t have phones to make private calls.

Young people can also be connected to case managers at the Center, who can help them with things like enrolling in insurance plans, getting a primary care doctor, and applying for an ID for a driver’s license, among other services and programs.  “But we don’t push it when they first come in,” Smith says. “Our goal is to eliminate barriers, not create them.  So, we try to help people with their most immediate needs first and build up trust.  That might literally be clean clothes or something to eat.  Once we have seen someone a couple of times, we will ask questions like ‘where did you sleep last night’ and if they are comfortable, start a conversation and see what help we can give them.”

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Smith estimates that the Manchester Center has served about 100 distinct individuals over the past year and shared that Waypoint is planning to replicate this model by establishing Centers in Concord and Rochester.  The need is certainly there, according to Waypoint, and these expansions are at the center of the annual Sleep Out fundraiser, scheduled for Friday, March 26.

While this year’s event will be held virtually due to the pandemic, the cause is as compelling as ever.  Waypoint says that about 15,000 NH youth (between the ages of 13 and 25) will be homeless at some point over the next year.  “We grow (our services) through donor dollars,” says Smith. 

“We need to show youth in need they do have a future and there is a way out toward a better future,” he adds. “We want these kids to know that we are always in their corner.”

To learn more about Waypoint or support their cause, please visit: https://waypointnh.org/

Your questions, comments and suggestions are welcome at: Chrisdugan@manchesterinklink.com