What do youth who are homeless need? And how far am I willing to go to help?

Jan 31, 2018

When advocating for the needs of youth who are homeless, it would be logical to support adding shelter beds for the community. But when advocates take the time to authentically listen to those people we are striving to serve, a more nuanced set of needs emerge.

Over the past nine months many stakeholders in our community, including over 50 youth, developed a plan to end youth homelessness in Polk County. The plan is comprehensive and includes strategies and action steps that invite public systems, private organizations and local governing bodies to reorient their work to match the strengths and needs of vulnerable developing young people under age 25. Central to this planning process was a collaboration with an active Youth Advisory Board, a group of youth and young adults who have experienced homelessness and housing instability.

Youth Advisory Board members shared their experiences and identified priorities that needed to be addressed in the plan. As we work to bring awareness to the issue of youth homelessness, I am constantly reminded of these conversations with youth. Youth described being disconnected from family and supportive social networks due to abuse, rejection, and violence, and felt like they had no one to turn to. In addition to safe places to sleep at night, youth wanted “more people that genuinely care and talk to us” and “respectful and responsible community members”.

These statements are about more than just providing beds and case managers, they are about a sense of belonging, safety, and feeling cared for. We can add beds in shelters, create new programs, and even pay rent subsidies. But if we don’t also address the social and emotional needs of youth and young adults, we haven’t really been listening and we haven’t gone far enough. While adolescence is an extraordinary opportunity for growth and development, without the foundation of home and family, these youth are not getting their development needs met.

Fortunately, there are things we can do, even as individual community members, to support the growth and development of vulnerable young people.

  • Show kindness and respect to everyone we meet. You know the saying: Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Many youth feel overlooked, but we can choose to see them.
  • Consider becoming a mentor, a foster parent or guardian. Many youth who become homeless have experienced foster care, but do better when they have caring adults in their lives.
  • Assess our workplace’s policies and practices for family-friendliness for all employees. This might sound far off from helping homeless youth, but employees are parents and when employees have paid time off, a living wage and a supportive work environment, they can better meet their children’s needs.

So I ask you, how far are we willing to go?

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