The Family & Children’s Center is going to leverage a $65,885 grant to expand its Host Homes Program in a unique prevention effort to take in youths before they become homeless.
The initiative, announced Tuesday, aims to accommodate youths whose parents are going into treatment for opioid abuse, as well as abuse of alcohol and other drugs, said Tita Yutuc, president and CEO of the La Crosse-based FCC.
The announcement took place on the front lawn of Dorina Lukins, who has hosted homeless youths in the past and has set aside a bedroom in her home for this program. It occurred as the blue skies shoved aside clouds after several bleak fall days to shift the weather into a brisk but sunny day on an attractive, tree-lined street near the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Yutuc praised Lukins for being willing to open her home, while the retired Logan High School teacher said, “You need to do something to make a difference for the community.”
The funding comes from a La Crosse Community Foundation grant that includes this year’s contribution from the Johns, Flaherty and Collins-Michael Stoker Memorial Housing Fund.
The Host Homes Program, which the FCC launched three years ago with a La Crosse Community Foundation grant provides “host homes with caring and supportive adults for youths who were homeless and in need of stable housing — with the added safety net of a social worker,” Yutuc said.
The expanded application of the program is especially necessary in light of the acknowledgment of opioid abuse nationally and in Wisconsin, she said.
“This helps remove barriers to seeking treatment,” said Yutuc, who cited a study that attributed the majority of the workload for La Crosse County’s Child Protective Services last year to abuse of alcohol and other drugs.
“There’s a clear connection between substance abuse, child maltreatment and youth homelessness,” she said. “By freeing parents to seek treatment, we can prevent more kids from becoming homeless.”
Petra Roter, executive director of the La Crosse Community Foundation, said the program is a stellar example of how residents “can get together, lead together and walk together to be a compassionate community … to address this wicked, difficult and complex problem” of addiction.
It also dovetails with the foundation’s support for the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness, she said.
And it is a perfect fit for the late Michael Stoker’s dedication to housing in the community, said Brent Smith, a managing partner of Johns, Flaherty and Collins, where Stoker also was a partner until his death in 2012. The fund, previously only in the firm’s name, was adjusted to feature his name as a memorial to him.
“He saw how often housing was connected to the less fortunate, and how important housing is to the whole being,” Smith said.
The Stoker fund was created from the proceeds of a class-action suit award the firm won in 2007, Smith said. Members of the firm were asked for ideas on what to do with the proceeds, and Stoker suggested “to put it in a fund for ongoing neighborhood needs. That is the whole impetus,” Smith said.
“He was a guy who cared a lot about this community, and he would particularly like this because it helps the community” in combating both homelessness and addiction, he said.
“It gives homeless youth the time, space and support to address their immediate needs,” Smith said. “And it prepares them to leave the program ready for a stable, independent living situation where they can fully participate in the community.”
Lukins, a good-natured 62-year-old who smiles frequently, and the potential youth for her to host will be vetted for compatibility in advance, as are all host families. Plus, she and the youth will get together to discuss rules and expectations — what will be allowed and what won’t, said Lukins, who taught English, speech and theater and now works part-time at Diggity Dog Daycare.
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Her previous hosting endeavors included instances in which she took in youths for up to 48 hours on an emergency basis before child protective services became involved, she said, while others were “very unofficial.”
Lukins’ most recent guest was old enough and responsible enough to have his own key, she said.
Lukins’ husband, Kevin Griffin, is retired from the military and now is a military contractor who travels frequently, she said.
“We mostly meet in airports,” she said, laughing, adding that they generally are able to carve out January to spend time together in Hawaii.
Although she and her husband did not have children, she smiled and said she once estimated that she taught 15,000 children over the years and considers them her own.
That tally continues to grow.