By Marissa Willman
For four years, SafeHouse of the Desert has provided a safe haven for teens in crisis through its emergency shelter in Thousand Palms. Whether teenagers are homeless, ran away from home or were kicked out, teens have a SafeHouse to turn to.
“A lot of times, these kids are facing very, very serious issues,” said Kathy McAdara, executive director of SafeHouse. “We have a number of kids who are actively using drugs or have drug use going on in the home. Others are pregnant and afraid to tell their parents or were kicked out when they did tell their parents. We also see gay youth who are afraid to come out or were kicked out.”
SafeHouse focuses on teens because their age puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to other resources such as foster care.
“The average age is 16,” McAdara said. “Chances are there aren’t going to be spots in the system for that child.”
Teenagers are never turned away when they arrive at SafeHouse. The staff does an intake to find out what the problem is and why the youth sought emergency shelter. Then, parents are notified to let them know where their child is and that they are safe.
A teen can stay for up to three weeks at SafeHouse and begin the program, which includes daily group and individual counseling sessions, educational programs and activities such as going to the movies or the Living Desert. SafeHouse also has a certified drug abuse counselor on staff because of the prevalence of drug use among the youth they serve.
“The goal is to get them to recognize that they have control over the life and to make positive choices,” McAdara said. “Even if life hasn’t been fair, you have to start assuming a little bit of responsibility for what’s going on in your life.”
After completing the SafeHouse program, teens are returned to their parents or a family member. McAdara said the education and counseling they receive is meant to help teens get along better with their family once they are reunited.
“Our goal is family reunificiation,” McAdara said.
McAdara said she would always rather see teenagers come to SafeHouse than face the dangers that await teenagers on the street.
“Kids under 18 generally have no resources,” McAdara said. “We find in this day and age with so much in the way of readily available drugs and sexual perpetrators, the streets are just not safe places for kids to be.”
Through the Safe Place program, teenagers in crisis can board any SunBus in the valley and tell the driver they need to be taken to the emergency shelter. SunBus drivers are trained to bring youth to SafeHouse’s facility, and McAdara estimated about 25 kids were brought to the shelter in the last year through the Safe Place program. Teenagers can also enter a business with the Safe Place logo and ask to be taken to the shelter.
Currently, SafeHouse’s facility has 20 beds and currently serves about 400 teenagers annually. Next year, McAdara hopes SafeHouse will complete construction of a new apartment complex that will house a 20-bed transitional living program for teenagers who age out of the foster care system. The program will allow participants to live on-site for up to 18 months while they go to school and receive counseling. Additionally, the apartment complex will have six permanent beds for those with physical or mental disabilities.
SafeHouse also administers outreach programs throughout the desert, including the Cup of Happy program that uses peer leaders to promote emotional wellness and address early onset depression in teenagers.
“It’s mainly a suicide prevention program,” McAdara said. “Cup of Happy is designed to destigmatize mental health issues.”
On June 20th, SafeHouse will partner with the Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force to present a Human Trafficking Symposium at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs.
“We want to shed light on something that’s happening in our backyard,” McAdara said.
The free event is open to the public and will address domestic human trafficking, specifically in Riverside County.
McAdara said SafeHouse is always in need of volunteers, including people who can tutor children or assist in the kitchen. Volunteer Michael Hardie, a lifelong educator who teaches reading, writing, social and computer skills at SafeHouse, has worked with SafeHouse for the past year and witnesses the positive effects of the SafeHouse program firsthand.
“I’ve seen a good many of the kids make very positive life decisions and changes,” Hardie said. “It’s an astounding place with a very loving, caring staff.
The executive director also said the teens do exceptionally well with hands-on projects that allow them to express themselves.
“Our youth really respond to arts and crafts,” McAdara said. “We’re always in need of people to donate art supplies or to come in and do a project with the kids.”
SafeHouse also has a new resale store, the POP (Previously Owned Products) Shop, in Desert Hot Springs. Donations are welcome and support SafeHouse’s efforts.
To learn more about SafeHouse and volunteer opportunities with the shelter, call (760) 343-3211 or visit OperationSafeHouse.org.