Opinion

A dangerous trapdoor

This could be the year concerned and caring Lynn legislators and a host of organizations and agencies focus on bridging the critical social service gap separating teenagers from adulthood.

A variety of governmental regulations set standards for cutting off social services for teens, in some cases, when they are in their late teenage years and, in other cases, when they reach their early 20s.

For teenagers facing tough challenges associated with mental and physical disabilities as well as learning challenges, substance abuse and homelessness, loss of services can be a life or death matter.

Saugus School Superintendent David DeRuosi is worried about the service gap. He told homelessness prevention advocates at a meeting this month that educators have a very limited time period to identify and begin to help homeless teens before they graduate high school or leave school and become much harder to help and find.

Lynn School Superintendent Dr. Catherine Latham sounded incredulous at the same meeting DeRuosi attended when she observed how some homeless teens don’t equate “couchsurfing” in friends’ homes with being homeless.

Parents of developmentally disabled and mentally ill teenagers have advocated for years for increased state and federal assistance bridging the gap between services available for teens and assistance provided to the same individuals once they are legally considered adults.

Local organizations such as Bridgewell and Haven Project are working to smooth the transition from teenage years to adulthood for troubled youth. Tucked on Munroe Street in the shadow of the commuter rail line, Haven describes itself as the only agency north of Boston specifically serving homeless teenagers.

Haven workers try to give teens a place where they can meet other people and make connections that can turn into employment and a stable place to live. Bridgewell provides similar support to disabled individuals.

Latham’s remarks underscore the difficulty even dedicated agencies such as Haven and Lynn Shelter Association face in trying to reach out and gain the trust of teenagers who are homeless for a variety of reasons.

Like mentally ill youth, these teens are at risk of falling into a sort of Twilight Zone between adolescence and adulthood where services available to teens may not be available to young adults.

Lynn’s legislators, beginning with state Sen. Thomas M. McGee, are dedicated elected officials who have forged close relationships with local social service agency leaders. McGee and his colleagues are urged to meet with those leaders and pinpoint potential trapdoor language in state and federal law that might drop troubled youth into the social service Twilight Zone.

Once these danger areas are identified, legislators can draft proposals doing away with them and highlight ways to better serve teens before they become a danger to themselves or others.

Youth homelessness in America is an incomprehensible reality. The Haven Project and other agencies can attest to its grim existence and elected officials and social service workers can combine forces to end it.

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