By Shereen Siewert

Wausau’s youth shelter for runaway and homeless teens will close, leaving a gap in services as the school year is about to begin.

Hillcrest House launched in March 2021 as part of an effort by Keep Area Teens Safe, a nonprofit organization that serves as a bridge to services for children in unstable housing situations in Marathon County. The group aims to keep teens off the street to decrease the risk for trafficking or drug addiction while offering meals, case management, mentorship, housing and other community services.

Mary Jo Freeman, president of the KATS Board, announced this week that Hillcrest House will close due to financial struggles. KATS is no longer accepting admissions and has cut staff while working on record storage and other tasks ahead of a planned Sept. 1 closure.

“Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to receive any sustainable monthly  financial support which is required to operate this type of program,” Freeman said, while thanking The Community Foundation, Greenheck Foundation, Goldbach Foundation, Connexus Cares and The Macdonald Foundation for their contributions.

Each year, an estimated?4.2 million youth and young adults?experience homelessness in the United States, 700,000 of which are unaccompanied minors—meaning they are not part of a family or accompanied by a parent or guardian. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, these estimates suggest that about one in 10 adults ages 18 to 25, and one in 30 youth ages 13 to 17, will experience homelessness each year.

And that, experts say, is likely an undercount due to the varying definitions of homelessness and challenges involved in identifying those in need. Homelessness is often hidden among youth and young adults since many are not in shelters and may transition between temporary sleeping arrangements with friends or acquaintances. National survey data reflects that homelessness affects youth living in rural, suburban and urban communities at similar rates. 

Homelessness continues to plague Wausau and surrounding communities. Diana White, communications coordinator at the Wausau School District, said officials counted 146 homeless students in the 2022-2023 academic year. That number has remained nearly steady since 2019. So far, there are 61 students identified as homeless for the upcoming school year.

But White said that number will likely increase once school starts and social workers can reach out to families.

According to a 2023 analysis from the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions Initiative, high school-aged youth who are homeless report higher rates of attempted suicide, prescription drug misuse, pregnancy and being forced to have sex. 

Transgender youth are especially at risk of experiencing homelessness and being estranged from a parent or guardian.

Freeman said at-risk teens who are not going to school or who do not have access to counseling, a warm bed, health and dental care are more likely to be homeless adults in the future.

“We are already seeing downstream consequences with enrollment decreased at our university campus correlating with missing teenagers from the local school systems especially since the homeless liaisons were not able to report problems  when school was virtual,” Freeman said. “The current shortage of workers will only get worse if those  teens are trafficked or do not get the life skills they need to survive.”

Freeman said the staff is devastated that they can no longer be there for kids who need their services. The home served as a save haven for up to eight teens at a time, allowing outreach staff to secure long-term accommodations and a safe living environment.