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When Teen Health Mississippi launched an emergency relief fund to assist young Mississippians ages 13 to 19 struggling to get enough to eat or find somewhere safe to stay during the pandemic, staff members predicted 500 applications, tops. They received more than 4,000.

Youth from each of Mississippi’s 82 counties applied for emergency aid from the nonprofit, which advocates for high-quality and evidence-based sex education and improved healthcare for teens in the state.

The pleas for help were often desperate. “I barely can eat, and I am tired of not having a stable place to live. I’m stressed,” wrote one applicant. “People are trying to pressure me into doing things I know are wrong, and that will only get me in trouble.”

Two-thirds of the roughly 4,000 teens who applied for emergency relief through the nonprofit Teen Health Mississippi said they were experiencing food insecurity.

Justin Lofton, director of Youth Engagement and Advocacy for the group, said a large percentage of applicants said their parents hadn’t yet received unemployment benefits after losing their jobs as a result of coronavirus closures, increasing the financial strain on their families. Almost two-thirds of youth said they were experiencing food insecurity. Others said they were homeless. Some could no longer afford medicine needed to treat diabetes, a health condition that can complicate recovery from the coronavirus.

Lofton said the crisis is particularly acute for LGBTQ youth in the state, who were more likely to experience hardships such as homelessness even before the pandemic. “We see a lot of young people, regardless of where they come from, are fending for themselves,” he said.

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Teen Health Mississippi director, Hope Crenshaw, argues that empowering young people to look out for their best interests starts with addressing trauma and making sure their basic needs are met. She worries that now, many teens seeking help will be forced into difficult and even dangerous situations. “Youth aren’t able to make the most healthy decisions when they don’t have access to safe schools, clothing and shelter,” she said.

Through its emergency relief initiative, Teen Health Mississippi has disbursed nearly $11,000 in direct aid to more than 150 youth across the state. The amount allocated to each recipient has varied based on need.

About 4,000 teens, representing each of Mississippi’s 82 counties, applied for emergency relief from the nonprofit Teen Health Mississippi. The organization had anticipated just 500 would apply.

For Marchellos Scott, a rising high school senior in the Mississippi Delta, the assistance has been a lifeline. “Where I’m from, it’s very hard for us to get things that we need,” he said listing off reliable transportation and meals as challenges he and his peers often face.

Scott is a member of the Mississippi Youth Council, another advocacy effort supported by Teen Health Mississippi.* Initially he thought he’d spend the spring lobbying the state legislature for changes to the state’s sex-ed curriculum, before heading to a special college program for high school seniors in the summer. Then the pandemic arrived, threatening to derail his plans to participate in the program that could help him prepare for college.

The 17-year-old lives with a guardian and considered taking on a part-time job to help make ends meet. But he worried working would hamper his ability to earn college credits over the summer and get a jumpstart on his higher education.

Scott received a scholarship from the University of Mississippi to participate in a selective public policy program in which 40 upcoming high school seniors will have the opportunity to stay on campus and travel to the District of Columbia. (The program has since transitioned to distance learning.) The financial help from Teen Health Mississippi means Scott will be able to participate in the program after all.

Related: Opinion: Three lessons from San Francisco about keeping students fed when schools are closed

The nonprofit has also partnered with several youth-focused organizations across the state to help cover costs for other assistance, including rent stipends and baby supplies for young or expectant parents. A $75,000 grant from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s #startsmall initiative is sponsoring the effort.

Those dollars are already being used to support youth tribal members of Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, one of the groups hardest hit by coronavirus in the state. Teen Health Mississippi has also partnered with a local group to help deliver groceries to families trying to limit their trips outside the home and to establish spending accounts for youth at local stores.

Crenshaw and Lofton know many young people are thankful for the assistance, but they that without bigger, more systemic changes kids won’t be able to weather the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis long term.

“It can’t be this piecemeal approach,” Crenshaw said.

*Clarification: This story has been updated to reference the full name of the Mississippi Youth Council.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Monday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

This story about Teen Health Mississippi was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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