Merlene Davis: Arbor Youth Services needs a fairy godmother

Spanisha Hollingshed, with her husband, Carl, and their daughter, So'nija, lived at the MASH Shelter when the family was homeless last summer. Photo by Merlene Davis
Spanisha Hollingshed, with her husband, Carl, and their daughter, So'nija, lived at the MASH Shelter when the family was homeless last summer. Photo by Merlene Davis

Had it not been for Arbor Youth Services, Carl and Spanisha Hollingshed don't know what they would have done when they found themselves homeless in Lexington last spring.

They had journeyed here from Georgia with her parents to visit a relative Spanisha hadn't seen in about eight years and perhaps to find a better life. What it turned out to be, however, was a whirlwind of events that left the young couple and their six-month-old daughter, So'nija, with nowhere to stay.

The relative had no room for the group and the travelers had no money for a room. Fortunately, her mother found shelter at the Salvation Army and her father found a bed at the Hope Center.

But Carl was only 17, too young for the Hope Center, and Spanisha didn't want her young family to be separated.

Carl was referred to the MASH Drop Inn Emergency Shelter, a branch of Arbor Youth Services. The shelter is a safe place for children ages six weeks through 17 years of age who are runaways, homeless or children in crisis. They are referred by the police, teachers, parents, guardians, social workers or even themselves.

"Runaways can show up on our doorsteps," said Stephanie Spires, executive director of Arbor Youth Services. "We can take 10, and will increase to 15 maybe early next year when we add a third bathroom and renovate."

Spires said the typical length of stay is a few nights. The goal is finding a more permanent and safe setting, whether that is at home or in state custody.

"It is a great house, but it is not your home," Spires said.

Last year, 330 young people stayed in the shelter, with an average of six to eight there each night.

"It is a good place to be, especially if you are young and homeless," said Carl, who was accepted at the shelter along with Spanisha and their daughter.

He stayed until he turned 18 in August, and Spanisha, 17, left last month when she won emancipation from Georgia where she had been in state custody. The couple, who married in August, now lives in an apartment which the agency helps them to afford. They are serving as a test case to help AYS learn how to address the needs of other youth in transition.

Spires hopes transitional housing will be the next venture for the agency.

"In the past, we had transitional housing and my plan is to bring it back," Spires said. "They would spend six months here, six months in an apartment that we pay for and then six months in the apartment that they pay for."

Those youth would be ages 18 to 25, she said.

"If you just set them up in an apartment, you set them up to fail," she said, because those young people do not have the life skills to go it alone.

Spires said AYS — formerly known as M.A.S.H. Services of the Bluegrass — has become the safety net for younger and younger children as the shelters for the homeless are becoming more segregated by sex and age.

A homeless dad of three worked, but had to stay at the Hope Center. His children stayed at AYS. A couple was staying at the Community Inn, but their children stayed at AYS.

"We try to encourage family support," Spires said, adding that the parents can have dinner with and play with their children before going to their own shelters for the night.

AYS offers other services as well.

The agency has an after-school program where students, ages 11-17, can be picked up from school, fed and tutored and then taken home at the end of the day. Spires said 150 kids were seen in that capacity last year.

"A lot of kids have very little parental support and a lot of them have been kicked out of every other after-school program," she said.

The after-school program becomes a summer program when school is out.

AYS also serves as a respite for parents who can send their child there for a break, giving both sides a chance to cool down.

And she is seeing a lot of young people who seem to have it all together, who are athletes and homecoming queens, but who are putting off going home by joining extra-curricular activities at school or by coming to AYS.

"You think they have a good home life, but sometimes that is their escape," she said. "The one thing that makes us different is that we still transport to their schools and to all their extra-curricular activities. We go to plays and choir performances and other activities.

"We try to keep their lives as normal as possible."

A growing aspect of the agency's programming is the street outreach.

Staff members target the homeless population that is age 16-25, offering a place to hang out four days a week to do laundry, shower and relax. The staff helps them get social security cards, birth certificates and other ID. And they try to find jobs for them, get them back in school or a spot in Job Corps.

"Unfortunately, most of that population is also young parents," Spires said. "That is a new trend. Last year we had three who had kids.

"We have become the catch-all."

In the last six months, she has had to double her staff. Two people are on duty 24 hours a day.

That means a lot is required of the two 200-year-old buildings that AYS occupies. Both need updating.

"I don't know what the future looks like, but we are either going to fall in on ourselves or we're going to have to bust out," she said.

Their biggest needs, she said, are facility-related, from new roof to windows. And they could use volunteers, a new car to help with transportation, more funds to expand and more storage space, she said.

"I need a fairy godmother," she said.

That sounds strange coming from a person whom the Hollingsheds see as a lifesaver and wish-granter.

"We came here and found friends like Ms. Stephanie, and a place to stay," said Carl, who has a job and, along with Spanisha, is working toward his GED. "They are really there when we need them."

To Help or Volunteer

Contact: Arbor Youth Services, 536 and 540 West Third St., Lexington, Ky., 40508; or call (859) 254-2501; or email

Free crisis hotline: 1-877-305-8092.