In 2013, 118 young people who were facing abuse, neglect, bullying or serious family problems in Lexington found refuge with a government agency, community center or business that participates in the Safe Place program.
In 2014, that number grew to 283.
"There is still a great need to help the youth who are in need," said Shaquita Andrews, coordinator of the street outreach program at Arbor Youth Services. "And the youth who are being served are getting younger and younger. They are having family problems, problems with neglect, physical and emotional abuse and just not getting along with family members."
Andrews is also the Safe Place program coordinator in Lexington and its 47 stationary sites that teens can go to, and the 85 LexTran buses which serve as mobile units.
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March 15-21 is National Safe Place Week, a time in which more people are made aware of the valuable services offered by the program and a chance to educate more teens about the services offered. Safe Place is a national youth outreach program that educates thousands of young people every year about the dangers of running away or trying to resolve difficult, threatening situations on their own. This easily-replicated initiative involves the whole community to provide safe havens and resources for youth in crisis.
The Safe Place program is a national network of 20,000 businesses and other locations that began in Louisville in 1974 with the opening of the Shelter House to aid the growing number of runaway and abandoned teens in the Louisville area.
In Lexington, the Safe Place emergency shelter is MASH Drop Inn, an arm of the Arbor Youth Services, which has been serving young people in Central Kentucky for 30 years.
Lexington's 47 brick and mortar locations include restaurants, community centers, fire stations, libraries, grocery stores, the YMCA and the like, where youth can find immediate help. All of them display the yellow and black diamond-shaped Safe Place sign.
According to National Runaway Safeline, a federally designated communication system for youth and families, between 1.7 and 2.8 million runaway and homeless youth nationwide live on the streets. Some have been kicked out of their homes at least twice. Some have mental illnesses, chemical addictions or are involved in high-risk sexual behavior.
Safe Place either helps them remove themselves from that environment, or provides them with food, shelter and hygiene products. Volunteers at the designated Safe Place are trained to connect them with the resources they need.
"We want to recognize those volunteers and those businesses," Andrews said.
Starting March 15, each day will have special activities to highlight the Safe Place program and the people who make it happen. On March 16, the TXT 4 Help initiative will be highlighted in schools. Through that program, youth in crisis can text the word "safe" and their address, city and state to 69866 and receive a return message with the location of the closest Safe Place to them. They will also receive the phone number for the local youth shelter, and they can also text with a mental health professional if need be. That service is available 24 hours a day.
In total, AYS interacted with more than 500 youth in 2014, including those in the Safe Place program and emergency shelter.
If they are trying to support our young people who are in crisis, the least we can do as adults is to know enough about AYS and Safe Place to direct troubled youth their way.
So, look around for those yellow diamonds. Make note of them. And see if you can find a way to help AYS and help our youth.