An alternative way of life

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A fight breaks out in your home. Doors are slammed, glasses broken and words said that should never be uttered. In the midst of such intensity you realize one thing – you cannot stay there anymore. Maybe someone hurts you, beats you physically, sexually or emotionally until you realize you have had enough. Perhaps you come from a happy family, where nothing is wrong except for the economy. Through no fault of your own you have lost your house and stability.  It is for situations like these that a local organization has opened their doors in the hopes of creating a place of refuge for teens across the area.

The Alternative House, which has several programs in Fairfax County and serves teens from across Northern Virginia, D.C. and Maryland, first opened its doors in 1972 in a local church. This shelter for teens has moved and expanded in the intervening years.

 The teen shelter is now located on Gallows Rd. in Vienna. Other branches of the Alternative House are located elsewhere in the county, such as the Assisting Young Mothers program which is located in Fairfax and the Community Outreach Program in Falls Church.The teens in these shelters were unavailable for comment due to confidentiality concerns.

 “Teens who have had a disagreement at home or are otherwise in crisis and have run away can call us for support,” said Meghan Huebner, the Director of Residential Services for The Alternative House. “We are here to help teens on a short-term basis, usually two to three weeks at the most.”

The organization also strives to make home life more peaceful for these teenagers. “We mediate between teens and their guardians, and offer individual, group and family counseling,” said Huebner. “We want to help people handle the crisis situations that they face.”

In some instances, however, teenagers may need longer term residency. A program began this past fall called the Homeless Youth Initiative, or HYI, which aids students who are usually between 18 and 21 years of age and are trying to graduate from FCPS.

“These are kids who, for whatever reason, do not have a guardian. They’ve been kicked out, run away, or in some cases had their guardian deported,” said Huebner. 

According to statistics provided by The Alternative House, over 100 FCPS students were homeless and without a guardian during the 08-09 school year, and over 65 have already been identified during this year.             

“We created this program because we saw a need within the schools and an increasing number of homeless students,” Huebner said. “I can definitely see the role that the economy has played. When things went downhill financially about 14 or 15 months ago, it led to more conflict and stress in the home.”

Because the Emergency Teen Shelter’s only has room for eight teenagers at a time, the Alternative House’s HYI program runs a group home for girls, where up to four girls reside with a resident advisor so that the teens have the opportunity to finish high school.

“We also have host homes, where people open up their homes for a student that just needs a place to stay until they graduate and get a full-time job to support themselves,” Huebner said.

In addition to providing free residential services, the Alternative House also runs a 24-hour toll free hotline that provides information and counseling services to callers.

“Most generally, people call in order to hear about what we do to see if they want to use it,” Huebner said. “But they could be looking for a Soup Kitchen in D.C. or a shelter in California. Oftentimes they just want someone to talk to.”

The phone line is usually the beginning of a student’s journey to the Alternative House, although people are welcome to drop by during the daytime. If both the teenager and the guardian agree to use the shelter, the student receives the all-clear to stay.

“We always want to make sure we respond quickly. This is a kid who is in crisis, we do not want to tell them on Tuesday that we can see them on Thursday. For example, we had someone call and come in at 1 am this morning,” said Huebner.

Occasionally the center comes across a case in which the teen wants out, but the guardian does not agree.

“These are pretty rare because usually the guardian recognizes that there is a problem and they want to do whatever they can to fix it,” said Huebner. “However, we have some time in which we can work with someone before we need a guardian to sign them in, and there have been times when we see someone on the run and give them whatever counseling help we can.