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Northeastern Pennsylvania youth shelter gives hope to homeless teens

Among the businesses and non-profits greatly affected by COVID-19 is the Northeastern Pennsylvania Youth Shelter. The shelter used to serve about fifty kids each day, but because of the impact of COVID-19, the number has dropped down to about four per day. 

“It’s a long walk for them just to come for a few hours,” said Maureen Maher-Gray, executive director and founder of the youth shelter. “For some of them, it just isn’t worth it.” 

Since 2017, the NEPA Youth Shelter, located in Scranton, Pa., has opened its door from 3 to 9 p.m. for students from several local school districts, and it provides more than just food and resources for the children of the community. The shelter has built four core values: inclusion, diversity, empowerment and safety, which are integrated throughout its work in order to spread hope and acceptance while fighting to end teen homelessness. 

“I realized that locally, there’s not a lot for any kid in crisis,” said Maher-Gray. “My friends and I decided that we wanted to try and do something about this.”

The shelter gained non-profit status in 2016, but the teen center was not opened until October 2017. Maher-Gray knew she needed to gain the trust of the teens, and she thought that providing a space for them to hang out with their friends after school was a good way for the shelter to establish itself within the teenager community. 

“It was quite a journey,” said Maher-Gray. “People don’t realize there are kids that are at risk, and kids that are homeless.”

The entrance to the shelter includes the word “welcome” in a few different languages, emphasizing their core value of diversity. (Acacia Krenitsky/Ithaca Week)

According to Erin Keating, the Scranton school district’s homeless and foster liaison, 125 students in the area have qualified as homeless since 2019. Maher-Gray said she would not be surprised if the numbers climb due to COVID-19.

Les Lancaster, assistant to Maher-Gray and life skills coach at the shelter, said he has noticed a drastic decrease in the amount of kids that come to the shelter regularly. “The kids that are able to get here are the ones that are able to get a ride from their parents or through a bike,” said Lancaster. “Some kids just don’t have those resources.”

“Some of our kids live far away,” said Maher-Gray. “It’s a long walk for them, especially wearing a mask during a pandemic. Because of that, we only see a few kids a day. But they know we are here and that we will continue to be here for them.” 

Despite the limitations due to COVID-19, Maher-Gray and the community have been working to continue to provide a variety of resources for the teens who come to the shelter. As of right now, the shelter has an art studio, a recording studio where teens can make their own music, and game rooms. They also have a clothing exchange, a room full of personal care products that the teens can take, and a nap room. 

“We try to take as many field trips as possible, and we often have guest speakers come in to talk to the kids, to inspire them,” said Maher-Gray. “Obviously, those are not possible right now.” 

James Scott, a volunteer at the shelter, said that it also serves as a school drop-in center, offering computers, shelves of books to read, and tutoring. “We still offer those resources. We are open because education is still important even in a pandemic,” said Scott. 

In the middle of the kids art wall is the tree which they call “the center familia,” which represents the shelter being the center of their family. (Acacia Krenitsky/Ithaca Week)

The shelter has tremendous amounts of support from the northeast Pennsylvania community. Maher-Gray said that she has never been worried about the lack of donations or volunteers, and that people are still willing to help in any way they can. “The money and donations are a big help, but the real reason we are still here is the kids.”

Lancaster said his favorite part of the shelter is the kids with whom he works. “Once they open up to you, it’s amazing to see how bright and talented they are,” he said. “They forget about the bad stuff at home and they become so hopeful of the future.”

The shelter serves as a safe space where teens can find the resources needed to think about their future, and forget about their troubles.

“We do what we can to keep these homeless teens from only worrying about survival,” said Scott. “The shelter lets them have the space to worry about living.”

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