By Hannah Heimbuch
After struggling for close to a year to make ends meet, the youth-centered Midtown Cafe will be turning the Open sign off for good next week.
“When we moved from the Refuge Chapel building, we lost a significant amount of income from the couple churches that were there,” said Midtown Director Rob Way. “Since that time it’s just kind of been a slow decline financially.”
But the move from Pioneer Avenue into the more neutral location in the Kachemak Bay Center has been good in some ways.
“Being between a liquor store and a church at our old location kind of polarized a bunch of people,” Way said. “Some people didn’t like us next to the liquor store, some people didn’t like us next to a church.”
In the year and a half since they moved, the number of children they serve has actually increased, Way said — up to 30 a day, with an average age of 10 to 12.
“It sounds like a really good thing,” he said. “But it just makes it even more sad that we’ve got all these kids that are going to be displaced.”
Zach Condon, 11, said he’s been coming to Midtown several times a week, and loves to spend time with his friends there.
“It’s a great place to hang out with your friends,” Condon said. “Get to know your friends, and make friends. I’m going to miss it a lot.”
The sixth grader said he’s just trying to enjoy it while it lasts now, making some final memories in one of his favorite places while he still can.
Since the move, 80 percent of income has come from register sales, and 20 percent from outside donations.
Midtown faced the possibility of closing once this year already, in mid January, but a surprise donation bought them a little more time. Despite that donation, and working with a very supportive landlord at the Kachemak Bay Center, Way said, they can no longer make rent payments.
“We had some local fishermen come up and give us about six months worth of rent,” Way said.
He was hoping that gift of time would be enough to complete filing for 501c3 non-profit status, and begin applying for some grants to bolster their funding. But, that time ran out.
“We’re back in the same boat,” he said. Way is now selling electronics and other property from Midtown.
The closure is not the only indication that options for preteen youth are dwindling in Homer. The Boys and Girls Club struggled to stay open, then eventually closed last year, with Midtown now following in their footsteps.
Both of Vanessa Fuson’s kids — now teenagers — have frequented Midtown, she said. And while she doesn’t let them go every day, she knows it’s a place she can send them where they’ll be both happy and safe.
“It’s a good place for kids to go,” Fuson said. “I know my kids are safe there.”
Fuson has worked shifts at the Midtown counter as a volunteer. Over the years, she said, she has seen a community of young people develop that not only form positive relationships with the adult staff, but really watch out for one another.
She remembers a night when a worried mom called the Cafe because her son hadn’t returned after leaving Midtown. Parents and kids searched until they found him at a friends’ house, where he’d gone without calling home.
Everything turned out fine that night, Fuson said, but seeing the concern the tight-knit group of kids had for one another was inspiring.
With Boys and Girls Club and now Midtown closing, Way sometimes doubts whether Homer is really interested in having a youth center.
“It comes down to a matter of priorities,” Way said. “If it’s not something that’s important to us, we’re eventually going to lose the fight with these kids.”
There are young people in Homer that either aren’t interested in or simply don’t have access to other after-school activities that many parents seek out for their kids, Way said. There are some that aren’t old enough for or don’t fit into established teen activities. Others don’t want to be at home, or don’t have homes to go to. Some of them can be found on the couches and computer chairs at Midtown every day the doors are open.
These are everyone’s kids, Way said.
“The truth is that every kid that walks down the street is your kid,” he said. “He lives here, and he’s going to be making decisions that affect your community.”
While Way and his wife Angela have a background in faith-based missionary work that informs their choices, he said, that isn’t how Midtown is structured. They don’t play Christian music or stock the Cafe with Bibles.
Instead, it’s based around building positive relationships that a young person can rely on.
“No matter what your standpoint, whether it’s religious or secular, if you want to have an impact on someone, if you want to influence someone or something, you have to have a relationship first,” Way said. “We were able to be a place where we could build relationships with the kids. Kids could develop trust in us and we could talk about issues. Talk about things that they went through, try and help them make good decisions.”
Those decisions might be as simple as encouraging kids to do their homework, or as serious as questions about drugs and alcohol, Way said.
There is a wide variety of youth that have come through Midtown’s doors, Way said. Not all but some of them are experiencing a myriad of home stressors, or even homelessness. Midtown offered a break from that stress, and a safe space, he said. Way was happy to offer that break, even if it was as simple as four hours of Minecraft and a free meal.
“In a perfect world, I would say hey, you need to get off the computer,” Way said. “But some of these kids, I would rather them be here with me than at home.”
While Fuson knows her children will miss Midtown, she’s also worried for the other kids she knows that rely on the Cafe for a safe and welcoming space to relax.
“There’s definitely a lack of options,” Fuson said. “And I am concerned. I don’t know what the answer is.”
Comments are closed