CLAREMONT, N.H. — As an 18-year-old with an infant in tow, Ericka Prasavath moved from South Carolina to Claremont planning to live with her dad.
When that didn’t pan out, Prasavath and her daughter, Khaliah, informally crashed in a “tiny, little room” in Claremont at 169 Main St., which houses several family assistance programs including One-4-All Child Care Center, which Khaliah, now 4, still attends.
The pair were “able to stay there until we had enough money to move into our own apartment and get a vehicle,” said Prasavath, who is now 22.
Without that support from the nonprofit Claremont Learning Partnership, which runs the child care center and now owns the building, Prasavath said she might not have been able to complete her senior year of high school or go on to obtain a certificate in phlebotomy.
She also credits the people at the partnership with helping her to find work as a substitute teacher in Claremont schools, as well as their assistance with furniture and pots and pans for her apartment.
“They helped me do everything,” Prasavath said of the staff there, who she said were “like parents to me.”
Now, four years later, part of the Main Street building has been transformed to serve as Oasis, a 12-bed licensed, residential youth homeless shelter, slated to open in September.
The center will more formally serve young people between the ages of 16 and 22 who were in situations like Prasavath was, along with their infant children.
The youth shelter will have six bedrooms, four full bathrooms, an office, common living space and two kitchens. At the same time, the organization aims to support those young people to continue their education, support their mental well-being and prepare them for the transition into adulthood.
“We’re hoping to provide with this program some serious wraparound supports for these kids,” said Cathy Pellerin, the partnership’s executive director.
Among the other organizations onsite at 169 Main St. are Connected Families NH, which helps families navigate mental health services, and Baby Steps Family Assistance Program, which offers clothing and other necessities.
In addition, the partnership aims to work with the Claremont Soup Kitchen to establish a food pantry onsite; bring in educators from TLC Family Resource Center, which is also in Claremont, to teach classes on sexual health and healthy relationships; and offer cooking classes through the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.
That’s not all. Pellerin said she was working to finish up paperwork to apply to create a new charter school, modeled on Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, which works with students at risk of dropping out of high school.
She also hopes to bring in a medical clinic and connect those who may be struggling with addiction with recovery resources.
The need for the program became apparent to Pellerin when she learned that a teenage mother and her baby, who were being supported by the One-4-All center, were living out of a car and when another young person who frequented the center was sleeping on a bench in Claremont’s Monadnock Park.
The teens were too young to go to the shelter for adults run by Southwestern Community Services just up the street, she said.
“They just couldn’t do what we were asking them to do,” she said of SCS.
Teenagers lose their housing for a variety of reasons, Pellerin said. Some get into a fight with their parents and storm out, while others may have lost their home when a parent went to jail or when a parent gets evicted.
Some parents may tell their pregnant teenagers that they have to leave if they want to have their baby, while other parents may show their children the door on account of their sexuality, Pellerin said.
About 10% of the students in Claremont schools typically lack permanent housing, said Courtney Porter, SAU 6 school social worker and a liaison with homeless families.
That’s well above the state average of 4%, she said.
Often students who are struggling with housing issues don’t sleep well and may not have regular meals, which can make it difficult for them to learn when they’re at school, she said.
It “could be a make or break for a student to have the housing they need in order to be successful,” Porter said.
Finding housing is a challenge for families of all ages, but it can be especially difficult for teens who usually aren’t earning an income, or if they are they’re making low wages, said Stephanie Slayton, executive director of the TLC Family Resource Center.
Helping young people solve their housing issues will improve their health and safety and help them begin to address any other challenges they may be facing, she said.
“You have to start somewhere,” she said. “Let’s implement this piece of it then that will help build some momentum behind that next thing that needs to happen.”
Construction of the teen shelter and support center is complete and the partnership has a certificate of occupancy, but it still needs to hire staff before the shelter is ready to open, Pellerin said. It is expected to open Sept. 7.
“I cannot wait to have kids in that space … growing into the magnificent young people they were destined to be,” Pellerin said.
For Prasavath, who came to 169 Main St. as a teenage mother, “It was definitely stressful” not to have permanent housing, she said. But, it was “also comforting knowing that we had people like that to help us” at the Claremont Learning Partnership, she said.
“We wouldn’t have to worry about where we’re going to sleep,” she said.
The newly renovated space, with its playroom, kitchens, bathrooms, washer and dryer will provide that security for more teenagers like Prasavath was.
“Everything is so nice,” she said. “If I was given that space to stay in when I needed it, it definitely is something that I would want to do. It’s not a place that you would feel uncomfortable being in.”
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.