Allegheny County's 412 Youth Zone provides lessons in independent living
He wasn't sure what to expect when a friend asked him to swing by a Pittsburgh youth center that had just opened Downtown.
Unemployed, out of school and homeless at age 20, Chris Millender decided he might as well check it out.
“I thought it was just a place to chill, but I didn't know they could actually help you on a lot of different things,” said Millender, who grew up in Monessen and first toured the space inside Wood Street Commons in late January.
Two months later, the soft-spoken Millender happily reports that he has started work as a prep cook at an Eat'n Park restaurant and is a few steps closer to getting his own apartment.
“They helped me get a birth certificate; they helped me get my ID,” Millender said. “If I wasn't here, I wouldn't have gotten the job.”
Millender is among the first few hundred clients who have visited the 412 Youth Zone, a facility funded by Allegheny County and run by Auberle, a nonprofit agency. The center includes everything from a large, colorfully lit kitchen and seating area to relax and socialize to quiet nooks for using computers and meeting with youth coaches trained in trauma. Its purpose is to prepare struggling youths for independent living.
The county is paying Auberle $2 million for the first year of operations, plus $200,000 for renovations.
The 412 Youth Zone is open free of charge to teens and young adults ages 16 to 24 who are homeless or have been in the foster care system. It marks a shift in strategy for serving that population; the county dropped five other contracts to consolidate support services into one location easily accessible by public transit.
“It's really going to help these kids transition into a successful life,” said Bill Wolfe, executive director of Strip District-based Homeless Children's Education Fund.
On Monday night, Auberle recognized Marc Cherna, director of the county's Department of Human Services, with its 2016 All Star Banquet Community Partner Award for his role in developing the 412 Youth Zone. The idea behind the one-stop Downtown hub originated about two years ago, in response to county surveys of the needs and challenges of youths going through difficult transitions, Cherna said.
“We found one of the biggest barriers was they had to go all over the place to get services, so we thought it really made sense to try to bring it into a one-stop shop,” said Cherna.
The hope is that early intervention will lower costs to taxpayers in the long run by getting more young adults off welfare rolls and lowering the odds they'll become jobless or incarcerated.
Outcomes for many foster youths are bleak. Between 20 and 25 percent of them exit the care system at 18 and become homeless by 21, regional and federal data show. Only about 25 percent graduate from high school. Between 25 and 30 percent of young men get arrested, while 70 percent of young women have been pregnant, he said.
The center hopes to reach 1,500 youths in its first year. About 30 to 40 have been coming by daily in recent weeks.
“We want it to be a welcoming, safe place for youth, and so far I think the initial response has been good,” Cherna said.
The drop-in center, which takes up 13,000 square feet on the fifth and sixth floors at Third Avenue and Wood Street, requires youths to register and swipe an ID card upon entry. It offers a full social calendar — yoga classes, Yahtzee tournaments, dance sessions, puppy visits — and a playroom for the children of young parents while they're using the center. Soon, the center will include a music recording studio and have an on-site therapist. It also has showers and a laundry room.
“These spaces get used every day — I was surprised by how much — and they're also teaching a life skill,” 412 Youth Center director Aimee Plowman said. “Sometimes they don't know how to get a stain out or operate a machine, so they're learning to do that so they can be successful on their own.”
Jordan Pitts, 23, a near-daily regular at the center for more than two months, said “when you're homeless, you really need those basics.” Like many who have spent time in foster care, Pitts lacks a personal support system — all of his family members have died. He also grapples with costly health problems.
At the center, he has enjoyed participating in cooking workshops and mini-courses on financial literacy. His youth coach helps him navigate bureaucratic delays in getting social services he needs, and he uses the center's computers to download forms like housing applications.
“I've been buckling down and trying my best,” Pitts said. “And if I need to have some time by myself, there are several areas I can go to just have a little me time.”
The 412 Youth Zone is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at 304 Wood St.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.