SOUTH WASHINGTON COUNTY - Cottage Grove will be the second community in Washington County to have a drop-in center for homeless youth.

The Youth Connections center, which opens Sept. 16 at All Saints Lutheran Church, will provide services and support for homeless youth aged 14-24.

Services will include laundry facilities, showers, kitchen and a computer lab. It will also provide necessities such as food, toiletries, sunscreen and warm clothing in the winter.

"Members from churches and civic organizations have been coming together the past few months to have conversation around the reality of homelessness," All Saints Lutheran Church associate pastor Tanner Howard said.

The center will be open 3-6 p.m. Tuesdays.

A 'long and narrow' county

The center will be run by St. Croix Family Resource Center, a nonprofit social service agency. Last September, it opened a Youth Connections center at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Stillwater.

"We have determined that we need more drop-in centers," said Emily Nelson, St. Croix Family advocate and educator. "We have such a very long and narrow country. Unfortunately, we don't have a well-working transportation system. It makes it very difficult for youth all across the county to get to one location."

Crystal Gentry, South Washington County Schools' homeless student coordinator, said she has been "nagging at" various agencies to open a drop-in center in Cottage Grove.

More than 200 students in District 833 are homeless, she said. But it gets worse; she

estimates that number is closer to 500 students. That number includes those with "housing instability," who may stay on couches, in cars or at hotels. She also counts students whose families "double-up" with another family in a residence or hotel.

She hopes the center will also help an underserved student group experiencing homelessness on their own. These teenagers are known as unaccompanied youth.

"They may not even realize that they are homeless," she said.

Donations needed

Planning for the center started with the Heading Home Washington County Collaborative, which includes members of the public, Washington County staff, representatives from local nonprofit organizations and the faith community.

Planning meetings began in February, with input from representatives from St. Rita Catholic Church, The Grove United and Light the Way Lutheran Church in Cottage Grove, and King of Kings Lutheran Church in Woodbury.

Other advocates include Cheryl Jogger, founder of youth hunger relief group SoWashCo CARES and state Sen. Karla Bigham.

An open house is set for 2 p.m. Sept. 10 at All Saints Lutheran Church, 8100 Belden Ave., Cottage Grove.

Both All Saints Lutheran Church and St. Croix Family Resource Center need donations to help the effort. Money is needed to renovate the church space and to help St. Croix staff the center and train volunteers.

For more information, call 651-231-7807 or visit