Cody Cousino / Photo editor
The large brick house on the corner of North Fourth Street and 12th Avenue looks like a typical off-campus house. A big-screen TV and video game controllers take up most of the large front room, Guitar Hero is set up in the dining room and a pile of drying dishes and pans sits next to the sink in the kitchen.
Unlike most college houses, though, this house sees between 25 and 40 homeless youth come through its doors each day.
What began as a research site for the Ohio State College of Education and Human Ecology is now a drop-in center for homeless youth and an important fixture in the Columbus community.
The OSU Serving and Treating Adolescent Runaways House at 1421 N. Fourth St. served more than 416 youths between the ages of 14 and 24 last year alone, said Jeana Patterson, program coordinator.
The STAR House is a safe haven for many of the youths that come through its doors, Patterson said.
The drop-in center is open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. and youths are free to come and go as they please at the house.
They have free reign of the kitchen, access to a phone and computers, places to rest, do laundry, shower and even shop for new clothes.
The STAR House was never intended to be a drop-in center, said Natasha Slesnick, director of the STAR House and professor in the College of Education and Human Ecology.
Slesnick set out to explore ways to engage homeless youths and get them back on the right track. Until last June, the STAR House was funded by a research grant for treatment development. The budget for the grant was $2.2 million, Slesnick said. Formal research is no longer being conducted at the house, but it continues to meet the needs of the homeless youth in Columbus with the help of grants and community support, Slesnick said.
Slesnick said they quickly realized a center offering treatment alone wouldn’t draw the youth that they were hoping to work with.
“None of the kids would walk five miles to come to our research center to meet with a therapist for an hour because this is not where their heads are at,” Slesnick said. “Their heads are at finding a safe place, food, a place to rest.”
Slesnick said she found that after meeting their basic needs and forming trusting relationships, the youths were more receptive to therapy.
The study conducted during the research grant period found that with the help of the drop-in center, they could engage youths in treatment. Over time, Slesnick said they found significant reductions in substance abuse and homelessness in the STAR House.
Patterson oversees daily life in the house and said ordinary, everyday activities like playing video games and cooking in the kitchen are purposeful.
“That’s how you build engagement,” Patterson said. “That (is) how you build their trust.”
The STAR House is a much-needed respite for youths living on the street who have been forced by life circumstances to grow up quickly and take on serious responsibilities, Patterson said.
Despite their lack of resources, society expects homeless youths to function normally, Patterson said.
Most STAR House youths are developmentally identical to college freshmen, Patterson said. But unlike college freshman, most homeless youths do not have the abundance of resources that college students expect from their universities.
Sentral Hill, 20, started coming to the STAR House everyday three months ago after hearing about it from a friend.
He said he was reluctant to come at first, but once he saw everything that the house had to offer, he was “hooked.”
“It makes you happy,” Hill said. “I just love this place, it’s just awesome to me.”
A self-proclaimed master chef and video game expert, Hill spent 15 years in the foster care system and had no where to go after he was emancipated.
While shelters in the area are open to anyone, Hill said he likes the privacy and community that the STAR House offers.
“The environment is more relaxed and everybody that’s here is on the same pace,” Hill said. “We (are) all in the same situation so we can (talk) about the situation and try to make it better for each other.”
Hill said most of his friends are at the STAR House, including some of the student monitors that work at the house throughout the week to engage the youths and establish a positive environment in the house.
One of Hill’s favorite people on staff is Mike Langley, a fourth-year in political science who has been a student monitor at the STAR House since November 2009.
Langley was looking for a student job and stumbled across the STAR House listing on the OSU website for student employment.
After almost two-and-a-half years at the STAR House, Langley said he has learned that youths often have little control over their situation.
“You get to know them and you get to understand that just one or two instances of their life could have … put them here instead of put them where you or I might be,” Langley said.
Relationship building is an important part of the STAR House’s mission and something that Langley enjoys, he said.
“Some of these people I’m just as close to as people I know and see in my free time,” he said. “There’s people in this house that … can make jokes with me when I walk in the door that some of my friends can’t make jokes about because they don’t know that about me.”
No one that comes through the STAR House is a lost cause, Langley said, and Hill is no exception.
Hill has big plans for the future including getting a job, going back to school at OSU or Columbus State Community College, buying a car and eventually buying an apartment of his own.
Hill’s ambition illustrates the main purpose of the STAR House.
“It’s like a bridge between the streets and the mainstream,” Slesnick said. “It’s nontraditional, it’s grassroots and we’re trying to bridge the two worlds.”