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Scranton shelter serves youth experiencing homelessness

A chalkboard sign welcomes visitors to the NEPA Youth Center, part of the NEPA Youth Shelter's programs.
Sarah Scinto
A chalkboard sign welcomes visitors to the NEPA Youth Center, part of the NEPA Youth Shelter's programs.

As you walk up to the front door of the NEPA Youth Shelter’s Teen Center, you’ll immediately spot the array of Pride flags stuck to the glass window.

“It’s so that anybody of any persuasion can know this is a safe place,” said founder Maureen Maher-Gray. “I’m very proud of that. We’ve had that since day one.”

She opened the NEPA Youth Shelter after working with Equality Pennsylvania in 2016, touring the state as part of an effort to have LGBTQ people added as a protected class under Pennsylvania law.

She went to bazaars, festivals, any event she could, and whenever teens would approach her, they would say the same thing.

“I’d never tell my parents I’m gay, because they’d kick me out and there’s no place to go,” she recalled. “That’s astonishing on many levels, but the fact that there was no place to go was the scary part.”

A 2021 survey by the Trevor Project found that 28 percent of LGBTQ+ youth have experienced homelessness or housing instability in their lives. The NEPA Youth Shelter serves any youth aged 14-18 experiencing homelessness, but Maher-Gray says she has always specifically designed the program as safe for LGBTQ+ youth.

The shelter runs a housing program and offers food, clothes and apartment supplies to youth aged 14-18 experiencing homelessness. The supplies are housed at their Teen Center in Scranton, where they also hold after-school programs for any high school students during the school year.

“Our biggest attraction is food. We have snacks, we have hot dinner, we have more snacks, we have drinks,” Maher-Gray said. “Because they’re eating machines, right? They’re growing.”

The community has embraced the shelter and teen center. Maher-Gray says 70 percent of the items filling the center - from the food, games, clothes, and even furniture - are donated.

She said once people became aware that teens were experiencing homelessness in their community, they jumped at any opportunity to help.

“It’s a very common theme that they had no idea there were homeless kids,” she said. “I couldn’t be more humbled by people’s generosity.”

Sarah Scinto is the local host of All Things Considered on WVIA. She is a Connecticut native and graduate of King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, and has previously covered Northeastern Pennsylvania for The Scranton Times-Tribune, The Citizens’ Voice and Greater Pittston Progress.