A grassroots effort to get gay and lesbian homeless kids off the streets in Minneapolis offers a promising model for King County.

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Sarah Fink was from a small Western Minnesota mining town, but at age 17, she found herself alone and desperately poor in Minneapolis. She’d been kicked out of home twice, once by her stepfather, once by her mother, who struggled with mental illness. On the cusp of 18, she was about to age out of a youth homeless shelter, too.

A lifeline appeared in the form of a middle-aged gay couple. Mike and Kim Muehlbach were strangers to Sarah, who had recently come out herself. They volunteered to let her stay in a spare room of their northeast Minneapolis home for free with few questions asked.

“Anything happened with my mom, I was kicked out,” said Sarah. “I thought it would be the same with the guys.” Instead, she stayed a year.

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Reporting for this project was made possible with financial support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private, national philanthropy that aims to build better futures for disadvantaged children in the U.S. The work was done and directed independently of the foundation.

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This arrangement, called a host home, has proved a promising solution to youth homelessness in that city and across the country. In the Puget Sound region, something similar is emerging organically, but often without the blessing of state officials.

King County’s partnership to end homelessness, All Home, is planning a much larger effort to build networks of host homes policymakers would welcome. Churches, including Bellevue Presbyterian, also have host-home plans in the works.

Young and homeless

Editor's note: Editorial writer Jonathan Martin spent several weeks looking at youth homelessness from all angles, traveling in-state and out to talk with kids, parents, foster parents, social workers, state officials and lawmakers. A series of editorials have addressed Martin's findings and appeared alongside columns and guest commentaries addressing this issue.

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Support for this series

Reporting for this project was made possible with financial support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private, national philanthropic organization that aims to better futures for disadvantaged children in the U.S. The work was done and directed independently of the foundation.

Reddit chat

Jonathan Martin and Megan Gibbard of All Home King County talked about youth homelessness during a recent "Ask Me Anything" Live chat on Reddit.

Seattle can learn from Minneapolis’ two decades of experience. In the late 1990s, the Twin Cities’ gay and lesbian community started an informal home-sharing network because so many LGBTQ youths were homeless. Nationwide, as many as 40 percent of homeless kids are gay.

It has evolved into a low-cost intervention, without the red tape or government licensing of foster care. A local nonprofit, Avenues for Homeless Youth, now runs three host-home networks for LGBTQ youth (in which Sarah participated), and ones based in suburban and urban Minneapolis.

Hosts are screened and undergo criminal background checks but the youth gets final say on a match after reading the families’ files, including a personal letter. If the kid is under 18, his or her parent must consent.

The model is intentionally simple, said Rocki Simões, who has run the Avenues for Homeless Youth GLBT Host Home Program for two decades. “There are people in the community with more resources. There are people in the community with less. Our job is to connect them.”

Simões said matching the host and the youth is like dating — chemistry is key. “There’s this awkwardly beautiful first moment,” said Simões.

Sarah and the Muehlbachs met for roller-coaster rides and pizza at the Mall of America. “They were very different from how I grew up,” Sarah said. Kim Muehlbach had been a farmer and the couple made their meals from scratch. “Sarah was used to to eating out of a box,” said Muehlbach.

But the match took. Sarah, who was used to parenting herself, impressed Kim and Mike with her work ethic, getting up at 4 a.m. to start work at a Caribou Coffee store. Mike, who’d previously hosted a young homeless man, said hosts should balance parenting instincts with the realization that youths like Sarah are often self-reliant.

“Keep your expectations low to reasonable and be pleasantly surprised the way things turn out,” he said. Be flexible. Be there. Let them know you care.”

Avenues for Homeless Youth provides support for both youths and hosts, with case management and monthly support groups. The nonprofit says the best model is to have two staffers support a network of about 10 active host homes. The per-youth cost is about $8,000, a third the cost of a traditional homeless transitional-housing program.

But Simões emphasized that host-home networks should stay small and arise from a concerned community, rather than through a top-down plan. That’s because a new influx of hosts is continually needed. Of Avenues’ three networks, the urban host homes had the least grass-roots energy and has struggled to recruit homes.

The United Way of Greater Twin Cities supports Avenues’ host homes because the long-lasting bonds formed between host and youth provide built-in mentoring. “When we look at the outcome data, we love the depth of the relationship built with the youth,” said the United Way’s Rachel Speck.

In the Seattle area, the push for host homes has been led by youth advocates from the Mockingbird Society, who this year convinced King County to incorporate it into a new plan to end youth homelessness by 2020.

But replicating the Minneapolis model in Washington has challenges. The Legislature will need to set minimum standards for host homes. It also must address the state Department of Social and Health Services’ position that, under current law, host homes accepting kids under 18 need foster home licenses. Minnesota’s state human-services agency doesn’t require a similar license.

And volunteer hosts must be comfortable with the liability inherent in bringing a stranger into their home. In Minneapolis, the nonprofit has hosts sign a release-of-liability waiver. Despite a few thefts over the years, “It hasn’t been tested,” said Simões.

Sarah left the Muehlbachs’ home after a year to get inpatient substance-abuse treatment, an ending that did nothing to dampen the relationship. Sarah later had two other stints with host homes before moving into an apartment with her girlfriend.

Today, Sarah and her two host dads text regularly. She sends them Father’s Day cards and stopped by for dinner recently. The running joke is that Sarah finally learned to eat more healthfully. But Sarah found a more profound lesson in her transition from a dysfunctional upbringing to the exceedingly normal home life of a middle-aged Midwestern gay couple.

“I learned from Mike and Kim what a normal, healthy relationship looks like.”