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We Help Youth in Crisis.

Director’s Corner: Focus on Sexually Exploited Youth (SEY)

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When a young person finds themselves homeless, it takes less than 72 hours for someone to try to recruit them into the sex trade.

Human trafficking is defined as compelling someone, through force, fraud, or coercion, to enter into the sex trade or forced labor. Most people think of human trafficking as something that happens far away, but Minneapolis, for multiple reasons, is in fact an international hub for sex trafficking of children and youth.

According to Wilder Research Center’s 2015 homelessness study, more than half of homeless youth have experienced violence and exploitation while homeless. As youth spend more and more time on the streets, their chances of being recruited, coerced and forced into the sex trade increase. Once recruited, it is incredibly difficult and life threatening for youth to escape sex trafficking.

It is imperative that everyone understands the signs of trafficking, so we can all work together to prevent young people from being victimized.

One promising strategy to highlight SEY and intervene is corporate engagement in this issue. One of these leading corporations is the Hyatt, which regularly trains its employees on how to identify potential victims in its hotels. Bridge for Youth Board member, Randy Okan, is the Assistant Director of Finance at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis and explained a few of the signs they look for:

-A minor who appears malnourished or neglected

-An adult arriving with multiple different minors over the course of one or repeated stays

-Staying for a long time without very much luggage

-A young person who doesn’t make eye contact and appears frightened

-People hanging out in hallways appearing to guard a room

Any one of these signs alone may not mean anything, but if a number of them show up, it could be a clue. Some of these indications are unique to the hotel industry, but if you work in an organization where you interact with the public it’s a great idea to research signs of trafficking that might allow you to save a life.

“I can’t imagine how vulnerable it would be, how frightening, how you would feel so trapped,” Randy said. “I feel like we, as outsiders, tend to be naïve. We wonder why victims don’t just run away, or call for help – but we don’t understand the constant fear they’re feeling.”

The youth we serve are highly at risk for becoming victims of sex trafficking. It happens right here in America, right in Minneapolis, right under our noses. We make every effort to reach homeless youth within their first couple of days, so that we can protect them from the trafficking industry.

Help us keep young people safe by donating today at:

Director’s Corner: Ending Youth Homelessness?

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In 2014, the federal government announced its intention to end youth homelessness by 2020 with the End Youth Homelessness Act of 2014. As an organization that has been devoted to helping homeless young people for more than 45 years, we are excited to see the state and the nation focusing more on this population.

One great result of this increased focus has been state efforts to forge a stronger connection between Child Protective Services and the many nonprofits dedicated to helping homeless youth. Strategies to increase child protection engagement with homeless youth would make it easier for younger kids to access the resources that are available to them.

Sadly, this increased focus is not coming with increased funding. The federal budget for runaway and homeless youth programs administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, Family & Youth Services Bureau, has only grown from $114 million to $119 million since 2009 – a decrease when inflation is taken into account.

Right here in Minnesota, the Homeless Youth Act was funded at $8.238 million for the 2016-17 biennium. That funding can be used for programs offering prevention, outreach, drop-in centers, emergency shelters, and permanent housing. When applications for this funding came in, the total requested was more than twice the amount available.

Anything that can be done to move the needle on the number of young people experiencing homelessness will be a positive change, but it is important to be realistic about the changes that can be made in such a short period. Youth homelessness is complex and multi-faceted. Any solutions to address it need to be multi-pronged and sustained – there are no quick fixes.

Youth homelessness has actually been increasing, not decreasing, in recent years. According to Wilder Research, homelessness among unaccompanied minors in Minnesota increased by 46 percent between 2012 and 2015. Some of that may have even been caused by HUD’s diversion of funds into other homelessness-related goals, such as ending veteran’s homelessness and family homelessness. Those are worthy causes, but focusing tightly on one population, to the detriment of others, for just a few years does not help anyone.

I’m happy to see the government taking note of the epidemic of youth homelessness, and taking steps to make a difference. I hope this short-term goal turns into a long-term commitment to helping the young people who are homeless in 2020 and beyond.

Donate today to help us make a difference for homeless youth right now and for years to come.

Director’s Corner: Why Governance Matters – Why Nonprofit Boards are Critical to Nonprofit Success

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Sometimes people ask – why do nonprofits need a Board and what do they do?  The easy answer is because it is legally required (Minnesota Statute 317A.203 requires that every 501(c)(3) have at least three board members.)

More importantly, nonprofits need them and a common characteristic you will find behind every strong nonprofit, is that they have a strong and engaged Board of Directors. 

At the Bridge, we have a Board of 18 members and who act together as a Governance Board meaning they focus their skills and talents not on getting in the weeds of day-to-day activities but instead on the overall health of our organization. They play a critical role monitoring our strategic direction and performance against our goals.

More than these lofty and somewhat vague terms is the bottom line – the Board is the final point of authority for a nonprofit and the check and balance on everything we do. The Board monitors finances, compliance, and performance against established goals and perhaps most importantly, they hire and supervise the Executive Director.

Our current board chair, Scott Thomas-Forss, joined the board in 2012. He felt drawn to The Bridge after serving as an intern here during college, and wanted to help us thrive.

As a board member, he’s able to do that by asking difficult questions and sharing his professional knowledge.

“Getting a diverse board is a great way to supplement the staff’s knowledge,” he said. “They bring expertise to the agency, and offer financial, legal, marketing, and HR advice.”

The Board guides our work, checks our work and protects our organization, as stewards, ambassadors and agents. They play a huge role in fundraising – both with their own dollars and by spreading the word about the organization. Executive Directors work hard but at the end of the day, the success or failure of a nonprofit rises and falls with its Board of Directors.

Donate to The Bridge for Youth today.

From the Executive Director: Reflections on the Bridge for Youth

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It was 1970 and a fearless woman refused to ignore the growing number of runaway and homeless youth in Minneapolis. Her name was Sister Rita Steinhagen and she never accepted no as an answer and from her determination, the Bridge was born.

In 1975, the Bridge secured its property at 2200 Emerson Avenue South in Minneapolis and for many years, this property was synonymous with the identity of the Bridge. For many years, the emergency shelter program (ESP) flourished out of the house and the Bridge began to grow adding family counseling, outreach, a 24/7 crisis phone line and other services. Originally founded to focus on runaway youth and family reunification, by 2002, the Bridge was seeing a growing number of homeless youth who could not be reunified with their families and so our Transitions program was started which provides transitional housing for homeless youth who cannot return to live with their families.

The fall of 2008 saw a dramatic economic downturn across the US and as the downturn began to affect nonprofits, it began to affect the Bridge. After having flourished for so many years, the Bridge began to experience operating deficits and in an attempt to secure more funding, sought project specific grants that taxed our capacity and resulted in diluting our core strengths. Between 2008 and 2016, the Bridge struggled to regain its footing and in February of 2016, I was honored to join the organization as its new Executive Director. After founding Avenues for Homeless Youth in 1993, I have spent more than 20 years in various leadership positions in the nonprofit sector focused on organizations serving youth and families and organizational turnarounds.

My vision for the Bridge is pretty simple: strengthen the core, stabilize the organization and re-focus on what we are best at. Since February of 2016, we have accomplished many great things including:

  • Financial Health: We have dramatically improved our financial health including our cash position, debt to income ratio, finished our last fiscal year with a healthy surplus in addition to being on track to finish this year with a surplus and we have established an operating reserve.
  • Programming: Many of the programs that made the Bridge great were scaled back or eliminated completely between 2008 and 2016.  With new funding sources, we have been able to add most of these back including street outreach and being part of the Streetworks collaborative, family counseling and aftercare, crime victim’s services, job skills development and independent living skills training.
  • Focus: We have wound down programs that were either mission drift or not aligned with our core principles and values.
  • Board: Our Board of Directors has grown, become more engaged in fundraising and oversight and become a strong governance Board.
  • Employees: We have improved our employee training and onboarding process in addition to making deeper investments in our employees in order to be able to recruit and retain a stronger workforce.  Some of these investments include: better health insurance, a retirement plan with an employer match, increased paid holidays and employee engagement committees.

As we look to the future, we look forward to continuing to strengthen our programs, particularly ESP, formalize our programs by incorporating evidence based, best practice models for service delivery, particularly in job training and independent living skills services. And perhaps most exciting, 2200 Emerson, empty since 2014, will re-open in early 2018 as “Rita’s House.” Once open, Rita’s House will provide affordable rental housing to twelve, 18-21 year old homeless youth in a safe, supportive environment paired with supportive services.

The number of homeless youth continues to grow nationally and locally. This is sad and unfortunate but we are very proud of the fact that the Bridge is in a stronger and more stable position to continue serving these youth today, tomorrow and until there are no longer homeless youth.

Click here to support our mission.

Success Story: Whitney Blount Smith

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Whitney Blount Smith was only 15 when she was legally emancipated. That big moment was just one step on a long path to independence.

Whitney took this picture in front of Transitions in 2009, on the day she moved in to the dorms at Augsburg College.

Whitney’s mother was an addict, and she ran away multiple times in her early teens because it wasn’t safe to stay at home. During one of those periods, she found her way to The Bridge. Counseling helped her return home, but the stability didn’t last.

Even after being emancipated, Smith felt a responsibility to her younger brother, who was ten years old at the time. “I stayed with my mom for about a year after that, because I wanted to be there for him,” she said.

Finally, she realized she had to move out in order to move forward in her own life. That’s when she found her way to Transitions.

“The Bridge was a haven for my safety and growth when I was in high school,” she said.

Whitney spent parts of her junior and senior year living at The Bridge, where she received counseling for trauma and depression. In Transitions, she found a safe place where she could learn how to take care of herself and work toward her goals. She still remembers the day she received her acceptance letter to Augsburg College.

Today, Whitney is a valued employee of Penumbra Theatre.

“Everyone was freaking out with me,” she said. “It was really beautiful, it felt like I had been accepted into a family outside of my blood.”

She graduated with a double major in Creative Writing and Sociology, and a minor in Social Welfare. She started working part time at Penumbra Theatre after graduating, and has worked herself up in the past 2.5 years to Executive Assistant.

“It’s taken a lot to get here. I have a lot of lumps and the scars to show for it,” Whitney said. “But looking at where I am, I’m proud of what I’ve overcome.”


We’re proud of Whitney, too. To help young people like Whitney reach their full potential, donate today.

Updated mission, vision and organizational values

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Earlier this summer, The Bridge’s staff took some time to reflect. Working together, we developed a new mission and vision statement for The Bridge for Youth, and redefined organizational values. These new statements blend our past and our present while envisioning a bright new future.

Mission: To provide runaway and homeless youth safe shelter, assist in the prevention and resolution of family conflicts and reunify families whenever possible.

Vision: The Bridge for Youth will be a premier resource for diverse populations of youth and families needing help by offering:
– Support that empowers
– Safe shelter
– Sustainable tools for success and restoration of relationships
– When possible, reunification.

Organizational values:
Focus – Our commitment to youth and families drives everything we do.
Excellence – We are relentless in our pursuit of greatness.
Service – Our mission will be at the core of every decision we make.
Village – We cannot do this alone and are part of a broader web committed to protecting runaway and homeless youth.
Integrity – We meet our commitments and are ethical, responsible stewards of our resources.
Teamwork – All of us are part of a team and each of us individually will do everything we can to make sure the entire team succeeds.
Rooted – We will be nimble and adaptable while maintaining our core.
Inclusive – Diversity in thought, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, economic status, political orientations and ideas is our greatest resource.
Bold – We are not afraid to ask hard questions and face difficult realities.
Lighthouse – The clients we serve may be in crisis but our organization will not operate from a crisis point of view.

The Bridge for Youth Announces Hiring of Jennifer Harding as Director of Development

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Jennifer Harding

Jennifer Harding, Director of Development, The Bridge for Youth

The Bridge for Youth are pleased to announce that Jennifer Harding will be joining us as our new Director of Development! Jenny brings to The Bridge for Youth (Th Bridge) more than 20 years of experience in nonprofit development and fundraising. Her experience includes having served as the Development Director at the Children’s Law Center, MELD and WATCH. In addition, she has served as a Gifts Officer for Augustana Care, the Associate Director of Corporate Giving for the Guthrie Theater and Development Manager at the Page Education Foundation among other positions. Her wide-ranging experience includes consulting with and working for organizations committed to legal services, human services and education. Jenny also has volunteered in various capacities in the nonprofit sector. Jenny holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Dartmouth College. When she is not at work, Jenny enjoys spending time with friends and family including her rescue dog Jackson. She is particularly passionate about child welfare, youth issues and social justice and is excited to be joining The Bridge! Jenny will be a great asset to The Bridge for Youth and its fundraising efforts, we look forward to her starting her new position in mid-August.