A place to call home: Project 16:49 opens Beloit house for homeless teen girls

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, February 15, 2014

BELOIT--The young woman needed only 15 minutes to move into an upstairs bedroom of her new home.

“I don't have much stuff,” she explained. “I can't tell you how amazing this is to me.”

A few weeks ago, the 18-year-old student was living in her broken-down car and trying to stay warm under a pile of blankets.

For two years, she has been homeless, sometimes bouncing between the houses of acquaintances, all the time trying to keep up with homework.

She was the first to settle into a house for seven homeless girls, which Project 16:49 opened in Beloit last weekend.

The local non-profit group helps homeless youth in Rock County have safe and stable housing and support to remain in school.

Ann Forbeck, homeless liaison for the Janesville School District, has been working to open such a home for years.

“This is an unconventional love story,” she said. “We love our children in Rock County, and we are not going to let them fall through the cracks.”

Forbeck praised residents and businesses who have donated to Project 16:49 to make renting the house near downtown Beloit a reality.

“We live in such a caring community,” she said. “People have put so many hours into fundraisers for us.”

The organization's annual budget of $170,000 comes from local foundations, individuals and businesses, said Tammy DeGarmo, executive director.

She estimated 200 recently came to walk though the home, which is not being publicly identified so girls can have privacy.

“So many have put so much blood, sweat and money into the project,” DeGarmo said. “The only way it will continue to work is if they continue to put more blood, sweat and money into the project. This house is only the beginning.”

The group hopes to open a similar home for boys in Janesville.

So far, three 18-year-old girls have moved into the late 19th century home, with seven bedrooms upstairs. They can stay up to 18 months as they finish high school or go on to college.

About 130 young people are homeless and not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian in Rock County. Most are 16 to 18.

The latest figures for the Janesville School District show that 55 students are homeless and unaccompanied.

Many times, they couch surf or stay at a friend's house for awhile and then move on. Some stay with relatives or friends for extended periods.

Many worry that, if they step out of line, they will be put on the street.

“It's hard for kids in survival mode to ask for help,” DeGarmo said. “In the past, many have been exploited by people who said they would help them.”

All the girls in the home agree to complete high school or a General Education Degree program; not to abuse drugs or alcohol and be willing to identify and work on life goals.

Their independent living coach, Amy Smejkal, called the girls inspiring.

“They find the positive in their situation, when they could be negative,” she said. “They have good heads on their shoulders.”

Many see school as a safe haven. In the hours after school, they must survive on their own. The name Project 16:49 represents the 16 hours and 49 minutes between the end of the school day and the beginning of a new one.

While in the home, girls will learn and practice important skills, including meal planning, cooking and conflict resolution. A weekly group dinner and house meeting are designed to keep communication open.

“We are preparing them so they can live in the community on their own,” said Samantha Gaffey, who lives in the home with the girls. She also is a graduation coach with the Beloit School District.

The first girl to move into the home found out about it from a social worker.

“It means so much to me that there are people who care, and they don't even know me,” she said. “It's going to be so much fun meeting the other girls and growing as a family.”

Her passion is music, and she dreams of studying music education.

“I am so happy,” she said. “It feels really good to be someplace that I can call home.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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