Stories from the Polar Vortex: “We’ve built relationships and we don’t want to abandon them.”
The much-talked-about Polar Vortex brought the lowest temperatures Minnesota has seen in two decades. Biting wind and 45-below temps kept most people inside for days at a time. But, for youth experiencing homelessness, inside was not exactly an easy option. YouthLink, along with many local organizations, stepped in to make sure these individuals had a safe place to go during the cold snap.
Sarah, YouthLink’s Therapist, explains: “We make it a policy to stay open when temperatures dip below minus-10 degrees. We want to make sure young people’s basic needs are getting met when it’s so dangerously cold. We served warm meals, got them gloves and jackets, set up cots. We tried to make it as inviting as possible.”
When weather reports warned of the hazardous conditions, the YouthLink staff shuffled schedules and signed up for 12-hour shifts.
“There is usually overwhelming support from staff who want to do overnights. It’s one my favorite opportunities to build relationships with the young people. It happens in such a different way when you’re working overnights and I think most staff are pretty eager to provide that support,” says Downtown View Transition Coach, Mickella.
Opportunity Navigator Daeona adds, “It’s really about relationships. We’ve built relationships prior to all this and we don’t want to abandon them. We don’t want them to be out there. The real basic reason for direct staff to say, ‘I’m staying,’ is because we have relationships with youth who are going to be affected.”
Relationships were a common thread in the stories that took shape throughout the Polar Vortex. One of the activities that helped both the staff and the young people connect was karaoke with Kulture Klub Collaborative.
“You could see [everyone] building their own relationships through the music they like. Watching the staff do it together also helped create a space where the young people were more comfortable. It felt like we were in this together, even though the situation wasn’t ideal,” says Daeona.
Even outside YouthLink, the less-than-ideal weather situation was bringing people together. Mickella recalls, “One of the most impactful things for me was the Metro Transit worker who spent three nights driving around picking up people and dropping them off at shelters. One night, at 3 a.m., he had picked up a 22-year-old woman with icicles on her face. He called and asked where he could take her and we told him to bring her here. I talked to him for a half an hour. He told me he had seen a story about two people who had frozen to death in a bus shelter and he thought, ‘I can’t just sit here and feel okay with people freezing to death.’”
Countless stories like these became a part of the Vortex’s impact. “There was so much chaos with transportation. The entire system shut down. They cancelled connections and left people stranded,” says Mickella.
Sarah agrees. “The last night we were open, there was one young person who had been a client at one point. He came in with his family—three adults, two children, and a little dog. They were trying to get to Grand Rapids, but the buses weren’t running. We tried all these different options, family housing, different shelters, overflow shelters. Everything was full. We even looked into getting them a Lyft, but it would have been $300. They stayed at our warming station in a private space we got set up for them and got on a bus that next day.”
In one case, the perilous weather became a new starting point for a family who had become disconnected just before the holidays. Daeona says, “There was a young lady who had nowhere to go. Child Protective Services was involved, so she couldn’t go home. She didn’t know how to navigate the system. So we connected with her case manager’s supervisor and started the process of family mediation.
“She got to see her son for the first time since December and reconnected with her family. The young woman’s mom hugged me and thanked me for helping her daughter. They both thought they couldn’t reach out to each other. If she hadn’t come here, they still wouldn’t be talking, even though everyone was worried about each other.”
One other key relationship came into play as YouthLink worked to serve these young people. And that was our relationship with our donors. We wouldn’t have been able to react as quickly as we did if not for the support of our community. “We are truly humbled by the heartwarming response of our community in young people’s time of need,” says Christine Schwitzer, YouthLink’s Director of Development.
When reflecting on the impact the Polar Vortex had on YouthLink’s work, Sarah sums up what we’re all feeling: “Yes, the dynamic shifts in some ways. We understand the realities young people face every day. Cold weather compounds that. But no matter what the temperature, we’re able to come in, do the work, and connect with young people.”
And those connections—the relationships we build—truly keep us all warm through the coldest parts of the year.
Thanks to the generosity of people like you, we were able to keep our doors open to ensure that youth experiencing homelessness had a safe place to stay during the extreme cold. YouthLink relies on your support not only to meet these acute needs, but every day as we connect young people to educational opportunities, employment, mental health services, and housing as they transform their lives and transition out of homelessness. To support YouthLink year-round, visit https://donate.youthlinkmn.org/YouthLinkMN