It is a place for young people to come in off the street, but it is more than just a place, says Cleveland native Brian Tallent, director of Havenplace.
“A lot of the young people who come to Havenplace are in the at-risk category,” Tallent said.
The nonprofit organization resides in a downtown storefront outfitted with a stage, game tables, a mismatched collection of couches and chairs and original artwork on the walls. It is staffed by volunteers who are passionate about helping disenfranchised young people get back on their feet.
Havenplace is open to anyone between the ages of 13 and 29. Many who spend time there deal with challenges like abuse, drug addictions and homelessness. Tallent said their mission is to let them know there is someone they can talk to about their problems and show them the love of Jesus.
“They live on the fringe of society,” Tallent said. “They can leave their drama outside and find a little bit of peace here.”
Havenplace, located near the corner of 1st and Parker streets, was founded in 1999 after a couple named Bob and Karen Cate heard news surrounding the infamous shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., including a story about some churches’ reactions.
Tallent said the Cates heard about the reactions of churches in one city to a Marilyn Manson concert taking place not long after the shooting. The shooters had been fans of Manson’s music, and many expected churchgoers to protest the event.
A group of Christians instead set up tables and gave free pizza to the concert-goers. Many Manson fans were surprised by that reaction and asked why they were giving away food. The group responded that it was because they wanted to let them know Jesus loved them.
That story sparked an idea to do something similar in Cleveland — to create a welcoming place for young people on the streets and to share love with those they encountered.
“We couldn’t give out pizza, but we could give out cookies and soda,” Tallent said.
The Cates believed the Columbine attacks might not have happened had the shooters been able to spend time with people they knew loved and respected them, Tallent said. They then realized there was a need for an organization that could serve as an open door to teens and young adults in Cleveland. The couple invited him to join them, and they pooled resources to rent a small space in the Village Green shopping center.
When Havenplace opened, the only advertising they had was word-of-mouth, and a few young people began to frequent the facility as word spread.
After 13 years and a change of location, the organization still has the same mission.
“It is to let them know there is a God who made them and cares about them,” Tallent said. “You take for granted having someone to care about you.”
When the center opens its doors is dictated by the availability of volunteers. Havenplace is currently open four nights a week, from 8 to 11 on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
On Sunday nights, Havenplace hosts “street church” for anyone who wants to come. It is so called because the staff want visiting young people to know they can come just as they are on the street. Tallent said many young people shy away from church because they think they will not be accepted because of how they dress or speak.
“It may not be reality, but it’s their perception,” he said. “We’re a bridge to them. We can show them that Jesus doesn’t care what they look like.”
On Thursdays, Havenplace hosts a night during which young people can express themselves through art. The youth center’s walls are covered with dozens of paintings from those nights, and Tallent said this helps build the artists’ self-esteem. He remembers how special he felt when he was a boy and saw his parents displaying his art on the refrigerator. It made him feel good about himself and what he had done.
“These walls are our refrigerator door,” Tallent said. “It shows they [the young people using Havenplace] have value.”
From time to time, Havenplace offers GED study classes because many of the center’s regulars have not finished high school, he said.
The independent nonprofit also works through churches and other organizations to add to what it can offer. Tallent said the facility has limited resources itself but often refers young people to other organizations for things like counseling, food or clothing needs.
“It’s providing keys to little steps to get out of situations they’re in — to leave behind drugs and homelessness and other things,” Tallent said.
Some young people the organization has seen have had a lot to overcome, like one girl Tallent referred to as a “rough child.” She was a drug addict who was constantly getting herself into bad situations and would often call some of the staff for help in the middle of the night. Conversations with people at Havenplace helped her get serious about quitting drugs. She realized she needed to get away from her bad influences, so she picked up and moved to Nashville. Today, she is a college graduate and a “highly respected” school teacher, he said.
However, Havenplace defines success in a variety of ways — not just the dramatic ones that involve complete changes in a person’s lifestyle.
“It’s also just growing up and having a good life,” Tallent said.
One man who used to frequent Havenplace told Tallent that his visits had kept him going in more ways than one. He said the Little Debbie cakes they gave out as snacks were often the only food he had to eat at that time. Tallent said the young man who eventually joined the military, got married, had a family and started attending college while working to support his family has found his own version of success.
Alishia Feaster, a member of Havenplace’s board of directors who has volunteered there since she moved to Cleveland from Michigan to attend Lee University in 2009, said the most important part of what volunteers there do is to simply build relationships with people who come through the doors.
“We just love on people,” she said. “That’s all we do here.”
She said she sometimes finds it difficult to relate to some of the young people who have life experiences very different from hers, and that conflicts can arise because of that and other factors. However, she and Tallent said they have not seen any of those conflicts get physical.
“I think the thing that I have learned is that when you are in ministry and dealing with people who aren’t like you, all you can do is love them,” Feaster said. “That’s what makes a difference.”
Members of Havenplace’s staff realize they cannot be fooled by some of the young people’s tough exteriors. Scary-looking tattoos, piercings and ripped clothing can serve as a disguise for someone who is hurting and in need of help, Tallent said.
“Underneath, they’re just somebody who wants to know someone cares about them,” he said. “Havenplace is not here because we had this grand idea to go do this, but because there was this great need for it.”
The mission that has driven Havenplace from the beginning is just that — to show love. Tallent said the organization cannot take credit for the changes that have happened in young people’s lives after they’ve begun to frequent the center. The staff volunteer after long days at their regular jobs and point to God for the fact they have been around as long as they have. He said the people behind Havenplace are maybe “not exactly the cream of the crop” but that they all “have a heart for reaching young people.”
“One of the things that people miss is that this happens because of consistency,” Tallent said. “Many of these kids have nothing consistent in their lives. It’s because we’ve been here.”
The youth center has been funded by private donations since the beginning when its founders pooled resources to start it, Tallent said. The center’s staff recently posted on the Havenplace community youth center Facebook page and said they have run into financial difficulty and need to raise an additional $2,000 to pay of of their bills through the end of the year.
What Tallent and Feaster both agreed that what they want the public to know about Havenplace is simply that it is there and in need of donations and volunteers. Anyone wanting more information on how to get involved can find them on Facebook or visit their website, www.havenplace.info.
Havenplace is not on the radars of many Clevelanders because it still relies on the same word-of-mouth advertising it did 13 years ago, Tallent said. However, the staff continue to keep track of the young people’s successes because they have seen many of them change for the better. Organizers and volunteers believe having a place to build relationships with hurting young people is as important a goal as it was when they started.