Within minutes after school ends for the day, the first few teens start filtering through the doors of the Gear in downtown Franklin.
Some migrate to the bank of computers along the wall to work on homework. Others help themselves to the pretzels, fruit and drinks laid out on the table.
The center is the epicenter of the Kids In Crisis Intervention Team, or KIC-IT. A partnership between area social service organizations that already help homeless teens, the aim is to point young people in the direction of food, education, employment and housing.
For kids sleeping out of cars or crashing on couches, the center is the closest thing to home they have.
For a few hours every Tuesday and Thursday, the center opens up its doors to homeless teens and young adults.
Since it was founded more than a year ago, KIC-IT’s resource center has grown gradually. Advances such as more partners and volunteers have been met with a smaller budget, a problem that almost all nonprofit organizations face. Without financial support, the group can only scratch the surface of the homeless problem in Johnson County, said Oscar Yturriaga, board president of KIC-IT.
“We do have organizations and individuals that donate. We are looking to add more patrons,” he said. “At this time, we do not have the means to support our own facility. But that’s our goal.”
In his job as the community relations specialist for Franklin Community School Corp., Yturriaga worked one-on-one with the area’s homeless youth.
He estimates there are 150 homeless residents between the ages of 16 and 25 in Johnson County. As opposed to the image of people living in cardboard boxes on the streets, they tend to be a hidden segment of society.
They crash on friends’ couches or live out of their cars. During warm months, they walk the streets all night, trying to catch a few hours of sleep on a park bench if they can.
“You probably won’t see them standing on the side of the road with a cardboard sign or pushing a shopping cart down the street. But they are there,” Yturriaga said. “They aren’t going to make it obvious because they don’t want you to know. They aren’t going to trust just anyone, but they need to have someone they can trust.”
KIC-IT was formed by community youth advocates looking to address a part of that homeless population that often is overlooked.
Johnson County programs for adults deal with families, leaving young single people with no place to go. Youth Connections, a community agency aimed at helping kids, can place teenagers who are 17 and younger in a volunteer’s home for temporary shelter.
But adults from age 18 to 25 are too old for host homes and protective services provided to minors. Former foster children are particularly vulnerable, as more than 25 percent become homeless within two to four years of leaving the foster system, Yturriaga said.
Community organizers started meeting in 2009 to discuss the youth homeless problem. Youth Connections, a community agency aimed at helping kids, first approached local agencies about uniting their homeless services for youth.
The agency was fielding calls from students who were 18 and older seeking help but was unable to do anything due to their age.
Youth Connections director Caterina Tassara Runyon contacted Katie Burton, a teacher at the Clark-Pleasant Academy, about bringing the community together to help these teens.
Burton helped recruit organizations such as Franklin College, Community Corrections and the United Way of Johnson County. The partner groups met to discuss the best strategy to help, how it would direct young people to the right resources and the level of assistance it could provide.
“I see it on a daily basis. It’s a vulnerable age group, because you’ve got the really young kids, and the older families who all have resources. Then you have this key group that needs some kind of assistance,” Burton said.
Working with at-risk youth every day, she had seen how much Johnson County needed a service like KIC-IT, she said. Kids in trouble don’t know where to start as far as getting help, she said.
By late 2011, the group was ready to open a drop-in center.
The center is housed inside the Gear, a youth concert and meeting space operated by Current Church in downtown Franklin.
At concerts and other events he hosted, pastor Gene Feasel found that a large number of kids who came to the Gear were dealing with homelessness or other poverty-related problems.
The Gear targets the exact same age group that they wanted to help. It seemed like a natural fit, Feasel said.
Free meals are distributed, and study sessions are set up. Volunteers pass out coats, gloves, hats and other cold-weather gear to help kids out on the street during winter.
A food pantry, featuring nonperishable items such as peanut butter, soup and canned vegetables, gives the homeless something to take with them.
Besides meeting immediate needs such as food and shelter, the group also helps students with long-term solutions to their problems, such as building job skills, managing money and developing their résumés.
If students need to earn a high school equivalency certificate, counselors can help them study and sign up to take the test.
Last year, KIC-IT volunteers served 50 people. But Yturriaga knows that more people are in need throughout the community and wants to focus on reaching them in the coming year.
He and other volunteers have canvassed the community to get their mission out. They have spoken to church groups and at service fairs, set up booths at public events and teamed up with established organizations to raise money.
Shred It allowed people to come and shred old documents for a cost. The money was split between KIC-IT and the Franklin Community High School band. A 5K walk/run called “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” helped raise awareness and money for the cause.
“In the past year, we’ve really learned about how to best serve the youth and what they need,” Yturriaga said. “That will help us chart the future of the group.”
KIC-IT also received a $4,000 grant in October from the Johnson County Community Foundation. JR Promotions, a local advertising company, donated the use of a billboard on U.S. 31, giving KIC-IT’s name, phone number and how to reach it.
Organizers also have been focusing on smaller donors. They set a goal of adding five partners each month, who would be willing to pledge a monthly $10 donation to help the group continue operating.
They purchased an outreach van to help take young people who need rides to school, job interviews or the grocery store.
A donor has pledged to help put in shower units, expand the kitchen with a range stove and dishwasher, and add a washer and dryer at the drop-in center.
Because all the drop-in center space, utilities and supplies have been donated, KIC-IT has nearly no overhead cost, Yturriaga said. But the group hopes to soon have its own facility that would be open daily.
Doing so would require $75,000 to purchase property and establish its offices and a shelter. Utilities, insurance and food costs would run close to $15,000.
Greater visibility will allow them to bring more attention to the homelessness problem, which will help generate those funds, Yturriaga said.
The focus for the coming year, then, will be to expand and reach even more people.
With their outreach van, they can drive throughout Johnson County in search of kids who need help. They can set up in parks and other youth hangouts to reach the young people who don’t have a way to get to the drop-in center.
“We’ve gotten to know the youth of the community and finding out where the hot spots for homeless youth are,” Yturriaga said. “Transportation is a main problem for folks, since they can’t get around, so we want to go to them.”