Sisu Youth Services has been assisting youth who are experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City for the last five years offering critical support when they are most vulnerable.
Now, Sisu is preparing to expand its space and services.
The organization is a non-profit receiving their 501c3 status about five years ago, and since 2017 have been offering shelter space at their location in the Church of the Open Arms at 3131 N Pennsylvania.
Sisu serves young people falling into the category of “Transition Aged Youth.” That includes people under 25. Sisu specifically offers services for people from 15 years of age, up to 25.
Sisu, whose name comes from a Finnish word meaning “overcoming great obstacles,” offers drop-in services such as food, hygiene, and clothing, as well as shelter services. In the last year, they were able to expand their shelter space to offer room for 16 young people.
Free Press was able to speak to Sisu Shelter Director Jamie Caves via telephone on Friday.
Caves talked with us about the need in our community for sheltering opportunities for young people.
In the most recent Point In Time Count (PIT), a city-wide one-day “census” of people experiencing homelessness conducted by professionals and volunteers, 90 unaccompanied youth were found.
However, Oklahoma City Public Schools’ internal census showed several thousand homeless youths. OKCPS numbers include young people who are shelter insecure, or “couch homeless” to use a term of art.
Young people who are couch surfing at various friends’ or family members’ homes are not included in the official HUD-required PIT count, though many young people are experiencing that specific form of homelessness.
The numbers of unaccompanied minors in the PIT count are deceptive. While 90 young people were identified during that count last year, experts know that the number is a tip-of-the-iceberg scenario. Many young people who are experiencing homelessness have become masters of hiding from authorities, both for convenience and for survival.
Caves pointed out that some young people simply don’t want to be found, because they are afraid to surrender their autonomy. Some young people have fled the foster care system, or abusive homes, and they’re afraid they will be returned to a living situation that they find unsafe.
Caves said that nationally, 40% of young people experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQIA2s+. Additionally, youth of color are far overrepresented in national homelessness surveys.
Perhaps most grimly, 30 to 40% of young people experiencing homelessness in the United States have been in the foster system.
Sisu has been planning to expand its space and scope of services over the course of the last six months. They had their eye on an empty church building at 2129 NW 30th.
Staff canvassed the neighborhood to talk to residents in the area about the idea of moving their operations into the building. When Sisu applied for a Simplified Planned Unit Development, or SPUD, a zoning category, they found that there was no protest from any of the neighbors. The City Council unanimously approved the SPUD, and Sisu closed on the property in December.
Their next building is essentially an empty shell at present, and Sisu is working with architects on plans for building out the old church building to accommodate sheltering and other services.
They expect to expand their shelter space to a capacity of 20, but the drop-in space will be much larger than they currently have.
Both of the main organizations serving youth in Oklahoma City, Sisu and Pivot, Inc., have waiting lists for shelter beds.
In addition to sheltering services, Sisu already offers more services and plans to expand that scope as well.
Sisu offers some housing case management services and plans to increase that, as well as more generalized case management. Additionally, they expect that Northcare and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services will both embed employees at their new location.
Caves said that Sisu wants to focus on reducing the existing barriers to housing that young people often face. That includes offering help with procuring identification, employment, education, and physical and mental health.
While a community partner has not yet been identified, they would like to offer a health clinic sort of space in their new building.
The goal is to become a hub of services for young people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. “A one-stop-shop,” Caves said.
Sisu is already partnering with some community organizations.
Thrive, a sexual health collective for youth already works with Sisu to combat teen pregnancy. According to Thrive’s website, their new goal is to reduce Oklahoma’s teen birth rate by 25% by 2025
Poetry and Chill, another local organization, works with Sisu as well. Gregory McPherson from the organization comes to Sisu regularly and uses poetry as a means to teach life skills. The program also teaches good communication skills to the young people at Sisu.
The Opportunities Industrialization Center of Oklahoma County (OIC), also offers services to Sisu’s mission constituency. OIC provides GED prep, job training, English as a Second Language teaching, and other services designed to help young people be more prepared for independent living.
Sisu also hosts youth outreach events, wherein they provide a safe environment for young people to come and learn about services. These events are largely circulated by word-of-mouth, and according to Caves, they are gaining momentum
Through the City of Oklahoma City’s allotment of Emergency Service Grants, Sisu is currently able to afford motel rooms for some youth as they await shelter beds. But that money won’t last forever.
The move to a new location is necessary for Sisu to provide the most possible services.
Caves told Free Press that Church of the Open Arms has been an incredible partner and that Sisu anticipates remaining partners with them for a long time.
This move will give some space back to the church that Sisu has called home, as well as giving Sisu room to grow.
There is no date established for the opening of Sisu’s new space, and Caves said that it would be irresponsible to guess at this point, for fear of disappointing or misleading the people who need their services.
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Last Updated March 27, 2021, 8:26 AM by Brett Dickerson – Editor