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HomePlate is still conducting outreach to an unhoused demographic that is even harder to reach amid the coronavirus.

COURTESY PHOTO: HOMEPLATE YOUTH SERVICES - Members of HomePlate Youth Services' outreach team in 2019, left to right, Bianetth Valdez, Jennifer Janet Casas Carreño, Joey Whiting, Hannah Kosel and Mari Onsurez.Like many nonprofits across the Portland metro area, HomePlate Youth Services has had to make tough decisions to reduce operations while still striving to provide services during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Washington County-based nonprofit, which supports youth experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity, has had to reduce outreach, essential resource availability and job readiness services, said Kirsten Carpentier, development director for HomePlate.

But service providers at the nonprofit say it's critical to do what they can to continue supporting homeless youth, because they are often less visible than other unhoused demographics.

With Washington County targeting elderly and high-risk unhoused people for limited shelter space, the lack of visibility of homeless youth will make it more difficult for them to access resources provided through outreach by the county, HomePlate's service providers say.

The nonprofit recently closed its drop-in resource centers in Beaverton, Aloha and Hillsboro for lack of volunteers. Gov. Kate Brown has ordered Oregonians to stay home except for essentials to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

"We have had to make the hard decision to not include volunteers at this time," Carpentier said. "That's a big impact to us. And several of us, for a variety of reasons, are not able to be in the office right now."

The drop-ins, which were previously available four nights per week, were an opportunity for homeless youth to socialize, take a shower, do laundry, have a hot meal, and access food pantries, hygiene supplies and employment coaching.

HomePlate has started providing an expanded to-go model of service Monday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. at its day space in downtown Beaverton.

To limit contact with others, HomePlate staff instruct youth who come to the day space to wash their hands and then go inside the building one at a time to start laundry, take a shower or access other resources.

"As soon as they're finished with their shower or have started laundry, they go out," Carpentier said. "They're not cooking, they're not hanging out."

She said the nonprofit has set a tent and chairs in its yard where youth can wait six feet apart for their laundry or for to-go items they've requested. Staff make food and other requested supplies available by placing them outside behind the building for pick up.

HomePlate staff have also been keeping in contact with youth who frequently access their services.

"Let's say they need help with a housing application or something like that, we have people who can do that remotely," Carpentier said.

HomePlate has also been collecting donations and preparing resource backpacks.

"That's been a big effort to get these bags ready, they're not being given out yet, but they would be in case we have to shut all the way down," Carpentier said. "I don't know if it would feed a hungry youth for a week, but it has things like cans of soup, can opener, water, a hat, beef jerky, granola bars. If you stretched it out, you could probably live a week on it."

Carpentier doesn't yet know how the nonprofit would make the backpacks available if the day space closed entirely, but HomePlate might rely on the knowledge of its outreach team to guide how best to allow youth to access the backpacks, she said.

Bianetth Valdez, HomePlate's outreach coordinator, said with schools and other locations such as public parks closed, it has been harder for the outreach team to find homeless youth.

"Yesterday, we did not come into contact with anyone," Valdez said. "And hearing from Wednesday folks, they said that they didn't see anybody. That's a vast contrast to last week."

Typically, outreach team members and a volunteer go out into the community four evenings per week and look for youth between 12 and 24 years old to offer resources, discuss services available at HomePlate, and spread awareness in case someone doesn't need services but knows someone who does.

That outreach has been reduced to two nights per week, and volunteers are not participating.

Valdez said she's concerned homeless youth will be left out of efforts to provide resources to unhoused people as a whole, because so much of the focus on helping people who are unhoused is on adults and families. Unaccompanied youth also have different needs and seek resources in different ways, she pointed out.

"Having certain businesses and nonprofits and services that our youth utilize closed, it's difficult," Valdez said. "The concern is with those basic necessities — even the simple need to charge your phone. There are very minimal options out there right now."

She said the outreach team is trying to come up with new ways to reach youth who two months ago could be found outside schools, in libraries or at TriMet transit stations and provide resources that are currently harder to access.

Those adjustments might include riding buses and MAX lines, because homeless youth are likely using transit as a way to stay mobile and out of the elements while public facilities are closed, Valdez said.

"We're still grappling with how outreach can work in this new normal," Valdez said, adding that keeping the outreach team healthy is also a priority.

Carpentier said online donations from the community will be particularly important going forward, as the nonprofit has stopped taking in-kind donations in person as a health precaution. She added the nonprofit is grateful for donors who have already responded during the coronavirus outbreak.

HomePlate had to cancel a fundraising event scheduled for April. The event was an improv show with youth, and the nonprofit expected to raise more than $77,000.

"That was kind of a blow, but it wasn't unexpected," Carpentier said.

She said HomePlate is evaluating the possibility of holding a new fundraiser later in the year in which people could participate remotely.

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