Because of a Catch-22 in a state law, Independent Living Services for Youth (ILSY), now Bridges, should never have happened. Through the tireless work of dedicated volunteers and a legal change, it did.
In the early 1990s, counselors and staff at Norman High School noticed the emergence of a needy population: homeless teens. These students were not homeless simply because they didn’t like their parents; their reasons were much more serious. They were alone because of some sort of family crisis; perhaps their parents were incarcerated, or deceased, or homeless themselves. It was for these types of students that the Mayor’s Task Force on Homeless Youth was created.
State law forbade these students from attending high school without a parent or guardian, and so they were forced to drop out. This made their situation worse: the only jobs available to them were minimum-wage positions, and because they were not yet 18, they couldn’t execute a contract for rent, make car payments, or receive insurance. They were ineligible for government assistance and social services, and their diminishing options put them at risk for illegal ways to earn money.
In 1993, the Mayor’s Task Force got the legal guardian law changed, so that homeless students could stay in high school. In 1995, a University of Oklahoma student began working with Norman High’s homeless population, and the task force became a nonprofit agency. ILSY’s first paid employee was hired in 2000, and in 2001, the agency purchased Sooner Pointe apartments, 20 units across from Norman North High School, and began housing eligible students.
The goal of the Bridges program is to assist students by removing barriers to graduation, which includes help with food, clothing, shelter, and medical needs. The students also receive counseling in life skills and have advocates to help them graduate. There is no other area program currently duplicating these services, and because Bridges students are not in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems, without our help, they would fall through the cracks.
In 2005, as their centennial project, the three Norman Rotary Clubs, in conjunction with the Norman Affordable Housing Corporation, raised funds to build a student center with living area, kitchen, computer lab, laundry, offices, and two additional apartments.
In 2007, after many focus groups and much study, the name ILSY was changed to Bridges. Today Bridges serves about 51 students per year, with about 20 per semester living on-site and the rest in scattered housing. We are a United Way of Norman agency with additional funding provided by rental income, grants, and community donations.