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Homeless Youth Group Preps to Open Newest Center Downtown

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DES MOINES, Iowa - Toby O'Berry says opportunity is what Iowa's homeless youth need to take their lives to the next level - and it's one of the big words on the sign of his group's newest building.

"Our old facility, the youth on the street would call it 701. They'd say, 'Let's go access 701,'" O'Berry, director of Iowa Homeless Youth Centers, said. "We wanted to embrace that; we have a large, circular sign outside that says 612. So kids, it'll be lit up at night, and they'll know they can come access services at 612 - there's no stigma, it doesn't say 'Homeless' on the outside of our building. It just says Youth Opportunity Center."

Iowa Homeless Youth Centers, a non-profit with three locations in Des Moines to assist over 500 homeless youth a year, is moving its main headquarters from 701 Grand Avenue to 612 Locust Street. The new location quadruples the size of the group's space, allowing it to grow.

"Where these kids need to access services, we have the bus line, the library, a lot of other services for homeless youth," he said. "So it was really important for us to stay downtown, and we were able to find this spot."

O'Berry's group is taking a holistic approach to treating homelessness; a new kitchen with a newly-hired full-time chef on the first floor means youth will have access to a hot meal the minute they walk in the door. With nine temporary bedrooms designed for quick stays (and more permanent housing available at a second location), a cell-phone charging station, offices for staff and third-party service providers, and a lounge all on the main level, anyone who walks inside will be connected to the vital resources they need immediately. The basement houses a donation center, with a "clothing store" feel to its selection, so kids have a choice in what they take with them.

"We were able to utilize the lower level for our donation center," O'Berry said. "The main floor for our drop-in center, where kids can come in who are homeless, sleeping on the streets, they can get showers, do laundry. Meet with case managers, get some food. We just hired a full-time chef, we have a commercial kitchen. We also have our computer lab, our art programming space."

An upstairs level includes space for life and work skills training courses, as well as just about anything else the youth want to do while spending time at the center. O'Berry predicts the 500 youth his group services annually could double in such a large space.

"There's quite a bit of minority outreach that we still need to do," he said. "The Hispanic community is one that we really need to let people know that we're a service in the community. I could see those numbers doubling quite easily."

It's a simple concept: grow the space you work from, and the people you help will grow, too.

"It's really just that safe place kids can kind of reconnect in the community," he said. "They were kind of given a tough draw in life, that we're really looking for these kids to reconnect, find positive adults in their lives, and kind of transition on into successful adults. And it really starts with building up that trust, kind of having a safe place for them, and then they can kind of thrive on their own."

Iowa Homeless Youth Centers is still raising funds for its new project, and is $20,000 from its goal. You can donate here.

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