Salem punks expand from yearly music festival into “epic” outreach service for homeless youth

Amanda Murdock knows that the right band T-shirt can help a struggling young person feel seen.

At pop-up resource fairs, which connect at-risk Salem youth with services and needed supplies, it’s a moment she looks forward to.

“They’ll be digging through the shirts, and they’ll start holding them up to each other, and they’re dancing, and singing along to the different bands,” Murdock said. 

Murdock is part of a new effort by Punx with Purpose to bring resources and community connection directly to an often overlooked age group. The Salem nonprofit calls the new program Epic Mobile Outreach Services.

Punx With Purpose focuses on at-risk youth ages 11 to 18. It’s known for hosting Punx in the Park, a resource fair paired with a concert lineup. That’s the group’s largest event and will come back this September

But the organization is expanding to do more. This past year, they’ve started reaching out to youth in local schools, community centers and beyond city limits.

Organizers began hosting monthly pop-up events in March, bringing supplies and resources directly to teenagers and young adults. So far, they’ve held pop-ups at the Salem Public Library, the Kroc Center, IKE Box and to the Acres of Hope Youth Ranch in Rickreall.

Murdock and her family volunteered to manage the clothing closet at last year’s Punx in the Park event, which over 400 youth used.

“It was very overwhelming, but it was just so fulfilling and so satisfying. We left there high on life, we were like, ‘We need to get more involved with this, how do we do more?’” she said. 

That opportunity came with the addition of pop-up events, where Murdock lays out clothing suited for daily use, prom and job interviews, allowing young people to take what they need. The clothes donated by Hot Topic have been popular, as have designs by Two Crow Collective which focus on mental health and chronic illnesses.

So far, about 200 youth have attended the pop-up events, according to board member Jay Greenfield.

April’s pop-up at IKE Box drew in 100, who were handed free bags from The Freckled Bee to fill with journals, pins, candy and gift cards donated by Dutch Brothers. They also received  information about how to connect with mental health support resources. Each was provided with hygiene supplies, like shampoo and toothbrushes.

The pop-ups bring resources directly to young people in need. A partnership with the Oregon Department of Human Services meant four youth left IKE Box with a new, functional food stamp card. One secured transitional housing at David’s House in Monmouth. 

Founder and President Hailey Kelley grew up in Salem without a safe home. She said the events help an age group often overlooked by social service providers. Young people also aren’t as receptive to textbook approaches to case management.

“They can smell it on you, if you’ve read it in a book somewhere,” she said.

Greenfield said that anyone who is able to go home, put their feet up and feel comfortable knowing they have a place to sleep has something many of the youth they serve don’t.

“It’s very important to realize that these kids, these youth, are dealing with more in a 30 minute period than 90% of the population deals with in their entire life,” he said.

Many of the conversations Kelley’s had at the pop-ups serve to help the young people understand that they’re in need of support, and don’t have to struggle alone. Some don’t consider themselves homeless despite couch surfing or staying with a friend’s family — circumstances that meet government definitions for not having housing.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve had to sit with a youth and be like, ‘You’re experiencing a type of homelessness, who’s feeding you?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, I just get by,’” she said. 

Resources laid out by Epic Mobile Outreach Services. (Courtesy/ Jay Greenfield)

The organization is run by about a dozen volunteers, many drawn to the work because of their own childhood experiences.

“I want to be the adult I needed. And that’s what I am. I wish that I had somebody like me, and it’s been such an honor to be able to become her,” Kelley said. 

But she’s clear that Punx with Purpose is not about the adults in the room.

At every pop-up, they ask young people to share their thoughts on the experience, and what their needs are. Their answers often surprise her.

Before the pop-up events, around the holidays, Punx with Purpose hosted a “Punxmas” to provide food boxes, clothing and bought presents for over 50 youth. One wanted his $60 gift budget to go toward cases of Yoo-hoo, a chocolate drink.

“He was so stoked about it. A lot of those youth, on Punxmas, that was the only gift that they got. And they were so grateful. Why is it that they have to be grateful for that?” she said.

Others asked for basic needs. One, a 16-year old dad, only asked for gifts for his baby.

The organization has been growing through word of mouth and social media. The first pop-up at the Salem Public Library brought in over 60 youth despite foul weather, and several signed up for library cards and learned about the teen room.

“Every event, every Punx in the Park, every pop up, I’m blown away,” Kelley said. 

Greenfield said future pop-ups will reach smaller communities in the greater Salem area, where transportation to Salem can be a challenge and service providers are more limited. 

The next pop-up is planned for Salem on July 20. The location will be announced on Epic Mobile Outreach’s Services’ Facebook page.

The group accepts new and gently used clothing donations, and is especially in need of plus-sized clothing, and hygiene products small enough to fit inside a backpack. They also work with local businesses to set up clothing drives, which are announced on their Facebook page.

They plan to keep growing, and keep building a reputation among Salem’s youth for consistency and an openness to hear their needs. Currently, the pop-up supplies wait in a storage unit between events, but the group’s five-year goals include buying an RV for outreach.

The group wants to someday establish a brick-and-mortar location, envisioning a place where youth can access case management, life skills classes and a food pantry. 

“We’re being creative and thinking outside the box because it works,” Kelley said.

Clothes can be donated to Chronic Tacos at 268 Liberty St. N.E. and during Make Music Day on Friday, June 21, they’ll have a spot to donate clothes at The Freckled Bee, 105 Liberty St. N.E. Punx with Purpose has a webpage with more donation information, and Greenfield said anyone is welcome to reach out over social media.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.