The food is set upon a long, dark table of maple in a wood paneled dining room. As the light from an early evening sky falls through the windows, young people and adults move around the table preparing plates and finding seats. As they eat, the sound of small talk and laughter mingles with a television playing softly in the background.
It is a scene that is not uncommon in homes across America; what makes this particular scene different, is that for some of these kids, this is the only warm meal they may have for the day or perhaps longer.
This is dinner at the Home, a day shelter in Salem for homeless and at-risk youth.
Last year the Home served over 8,000 such meals to over 600 youth who visited the shelter.
According to Home Director Peggy Kahan, the meals are only a part of a larger structure of services that the Home offers to the teens that come to the shelter.
“We also offer hot showers, clothing, personal hygiene products, as well as a host of other resources,” she said.
Those resources include assistance with job seeking, tutoring for schoolwork, bus transportation, and guidance with life skills.
The Home also offers referrals for health services, overnight shelters, and mental health services, as well as assistance with issues of abuse kids may be facing at home or on the streets.
Employed at the Home are two outreach workers whose purpose is to engage the youth and build relationships for the purpose of helping them access the shelter’s services, find safer living environments, and provide crisis intervention.
The Home also offers families in crisis services that are designed to preserve and help families.
“We offer the kids a safe and positive environment. It is a place to help them reconnect the community and find the resources they need to move forward in their lives,” Kahan said. “We ask the kids why they come here, and they invariably give three reasons: it is a positive and safe place, a place for someone to talk to, and a place to have a meal.”
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the struggle for survival on the streets can include many dangers, such as sexual predators, hunger, difficulty staying in school, greater susceptibility to illness, as well as multiple mental health issues such as depression, and post traumatic stress syndrome.
The coalition states that there are often three root causes for homelessness amongst teens: family problems, economic problems, and residential instability.
They cite physical and sexual abuse, addiction of family members, and parental neglect as common reasons that youth leave their homes for a life on the streets.
Data presented in 2008 by The Marion County Children and Families Commission estimated that there were over 3200 homeless and runaway youth in Marion County alone.
One is a young man named Chad.
“When I first came to the Home it was a place to be after school, to get help with homework, and to get a warm meal,” he said. “Being homeless is hard; it’s challenging couch surfing. Without this place, I would be on the streets.”
Chad said that the home has helped, not only with meals and services, but also in shaping his outlook on life. A blossoming musician, he told of how he learned to play guitar at the Home and that he intends to go to college and become an English teacher.
“Without the Home,” he said, “I wouldn’t be me.”
It is a struggle to help young people like Chad, according to Kahan.
“The Home is always in need of donated items such as blankets, toothbrushes, shampoo, clothing, food, and other necessities.”
Volunteers are in need as well.
Despite the struggle Kahan insists that service can be a gratifying experience.
“It is incredibly rewarding,” she said “We see the difference we make with these kids, helping them back into school or a stable living environment.
“We have kids come back and tell us that ‘this place made me a better person, changed my life, or helped me get back into school.’”
For more information, or to become involved, you can contact the Home at 503-391-6428 or visit their website at www.homeyouthcenter.org.