Tricia Ratliff, who runs youth services for the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, explains how the house chore board works. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Most of the young people living at Taylor’s House are reluctant to talk about their lives with strangers. 

But a row of cubbies along the living room wall at gives a glimpse into their days.

One is full with DVDs of “The Simpsons” – a Christmas gift donated to the recipient. Two others are all books, a mix of science fiction and young adult novels. One has little beyond a pair of headphones. Another is Play-Doh and other toys.

Taylor’s House is Salem’s newest shelter, a home for teens and young people between 11 and 18 who are homeless or in foster care and don’t have another place to go. Employees work with teens on completing high school or a GED, finding work and resolving family problems.

“The idea is to be more than a roof over their head,” said Tricia Ratliff, the program director for the home, youth and resource center at Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which runs the shelter.

Though teenage homelessness is often less visible than adult homelessness, it’s a significant problem in Salem. There are roughly 1,100 homeless young people in the Salem-Keizer school district, according to state data. Of those, 59 are unsheltered, and 174 don’t have a parent or guardian in their lives.

That doesn’t count teens who have graduated or dropped out.

Aside from Taylor's House, those teens can get services at the agency's teen drop-in center in downtown Salem, Ratliff said. The center offers showers, laundry, help with school and other services geared toward street teens and runaways, seven days a week.

Before the shelter opened, a few young people were sleeping in the doorway of the drop-in center at night, she said. For them, it was safer than sleeping in a park with adults.

It’s been nearly a decade since Salem had a shelter or program to house homeless minors other than a few beds on an emergency basis, said Stephen Goins, who runs transitional programs for Northwest Human Services.

Goins oversees a program supporting homeless young adults between 18 and 24. Many of them became homeless as minors and often walk through his doors with no high school diploma or GED.

He’s hopeful that Taylor’s House can provide an earlier intervention to help young people complete school and start planning for the rest of their lives.

“If they have a safe place to stay, they’re around adults who are encouraging them they can complete their educational requirements,” he said. “A lot of kids that come here, they spend so much time in a position of survival trying to figure out where they’re going to sleep they don’t even think days, weeks, months ahead.”

Tricia Ratliff discusses a case with Francisco Sanchez, a youth support specialist at Taylor's House. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Taylor’s House opened in December, less than a year after then-high school student Raul Marquez presented the idea to the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley’s board and asked for their support.

Marquez walked out of that meeting with a commitment of $100,000, and quickly raised an additional $300,000, including $200,000 from the Legislature, to buy and renovate the small blue house in a residential neighborhood just north of downtown.

Andrew Galen, United Way's director of strategic initiatives, oversaw the purchase and renovation before turning the house over to Ratliff's program.

“Words can’t describe how grateful I am,” Marquez said about the home opening its doors.

The reasons teens become homeless vary. Many leave home because they don’t feel safe there, often due to a parent’s drug use or family violence. Mental illness in either a parent or a teen is another reason, Ratliff said.

Some run away because they think their parents are too strict.

Many are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, she said. Some become homeless because parents disown them. Others choose to leave home because their parents aren’t accepting.

In some cases, they’re part of a family that just can’t make ends meet or afford rent.

Salem’s family shelters always have waiting lists, so families are often forced to choose between staying together on the streets or in a car, or having parents seek shelter while leaving children to fend for themselves, Ratliff said.

“Families are having to make decisions that no family should ever have to make,” Marquez said.

Taylor's House can also take in foster children through a contract with Oregon's Department of Human Services. Staff can work with teens who have run away from a foster placement or moved between many foster homes to find a more stable future.

Tricia Ratliff stands in the living room of Taylor's House, Salem's first shelter for homeless teens in more than a decade. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The house feels more like a quirky college rental than an institution. There’s a chore board, a large refrigerator and plenty of snacks in the closet.

Residents sleep dorm-style in single beds upstairs and receive a handmade quilt when they first come to the home.

Walls are painted sky blue in an effort to keep the atmosphere feeling calm. Teens eat with staff at a large kitchen table with bench seating on two sides and natural light from large windows.

A stuffed red octopus sits on top of a fish tank in the living room. In the basement, graffiti art on the wall affirms the house’s values: hope, love and faith.

“We didn’t want this to be a creepy basement,” Ratliff said.

One month after opening, Taylor’s House is home to six young people, and has sheltered about a dozen in total. It has space for up to 10 residents and runs on about $450,000 a year, which pays for nine staff, as well as utilities and supplies. Staff are on site around the clock.

At 18, Matthew is one of the older residents of the home. He's a McNary High School who graduate grew up in foster care and hopes to serve in the Army.

Because of a shortage of foster parents in Marion County, his most recent placement was in Eugene. It didn't work out, he said, though he didn't want to elaborate. He found out about Taylor's House through the drop-in center and is staying until the state can find him another placement.

So far, he said he's enjoyed the food and the home atmosphere.

"I thought it was cool," he said.

There's always a puzzle on the living room table for Taylor's House residents to work on. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

While homeless adults are visible around the city, young people are more likely to couch surf, spending one or two nights somewhere before moving on.

“Youth homelessness looks different than adult homelessness in a lot of ways,” said Ratliff.

But just because homeless teens may have a roof over their head doesn’t mean they’re safe. 

Usually, they get shelter at the whim of someone else, who may kick them out without notice. That leads to stress, with kids worrying about whether they’ll still have a place to stay come night.

“That constant heightened emotion and state of being, your brain’s not going to be able to focus on school,” Ratliff said.

She said one resident at Taylor’s House was shuffled around so much he’s constantly asking staff, “Are you going to kick me out?”

Another was sexually assaulted by friends of her host while couch surfing.

Through working with his church at the Salvation Army, he got to know a homeless family with a teen boy who was passionate about music, like him, and wanted to join the church’s worship team. But it was difficult for him to stay involved because he was constantly moving.

“They’re moving around so they can’t really engage with their academics or school environment,” Marquez said.

Taylor’s House seeks to find more stable housing for its residents within 21 days of their arrival, though that’s not always possible. In some cases, that means mediating with family or working with parents on strategies to better support a child with a mental illness.

Sometimes, it means working with a young person to identify other people in their lives who can support them, whether that’s extended family or a friend’s parents.

 “Family doesn’t have to be biological family,” Ratliff said.

Correction: This article incorrectly said ARCHES ran the shelter. The Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency runs Taylor's House. ARCHES is a separate program within that agency.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: (503) 575-1241 or rachel@salemreporter.com

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