By Leslie Scott, MSSA LSW CTP-C
“Even though it’s uncomfortable, we need to talk about homelessness.” – Transitional Age Homeless Youth
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $6.1 million to the Community Shelter Board through the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program. Unlike previous programs that have under taken to end Transitional Age Youth Homelessness (youth ages 18 to 24 years old), this program has mandated youth be a part of the decision-making process, by deciding where the funds go, how they are spent, and how we improve Transitional Age Youth homeless services.
The Community Shelter Board (CSB) has since formed the Youth Action Board (YAB), which is a group of Transitional Age Youth who are or have experienced homelessness and are willing to give feedback on Franklin County homeless services. I have spoken with some of the youth on the Youth Action Board and wanted to share what I learned. I cannot say enough about the strength, dedication, and endurance each of these individuals have. I hope you enjoy their interviews, as much as I did.
What is one thing you want someone who is not nor has never been homeless to understand about the homeless experience?
Destiny H: Even though it’s uncomfortable, we need to talk about homelessness. People need to know that there are 15-year-old girls who are homeless or being sex trafficked. If people know, they will do something about it.
ANYONMOUS YOUTH: When I first went into the shelter, my son was only 5 weeks only and everyone at the shelter would talk to me about my son, which made it easier. There was an instant bond. Young adults need extra support, guidance, and an example of stability.
What kept you and people you know in the homeless cycle?
Destiny H: Transitional Age Youth are not prepared for life after being homeless. Youth need independent living skills, so they can have experience and know how to be adults after they have stable housing.
ANYONMOUS YOUTH: I was in foster care at 7 years old, then placed with relatives who were abusive. At 14 years old, I moved to Columbus, OH with my aunt. This taught me “if something goes wrong, I can get out” when I should have been thinking about building stability for myself. Almost like the “grass is greener”. I am grateful for my current housing, as my only other option was low income housing after I left the shelter. Low income housing is very poor quality and I didn’t want that for my child. Instead of thinking “beggars can’t be choosers” think about helping someone find a “higher chance of succeeding”.
If you had another word for homelessness what would it be?
Destiny H: ‘Homelessness’ is a terrible word. I would use ‘without housing’ or ‘struggling’. ‘Struggling’ is a good option, because it doesn’t identify what someone is experiencing, while communicating they need help.
ANYONMOUS YOUTH: For me, one situation I experience, isn’t my identity. I don’t identify as homeless. I would replace this word with “needing help” or “just trying to figure it out”. My life taught me that I needed to be “independent” and do things on my own, I am learning now that there is a balance to being independent.
What do we get right about homeless services?
Destiny H: “That we need help”
ANYONMOUS YOUTH: When I started the Transitional Living Program (TLP), I was given a packet that included all the information I needed. It was very helpful and made me feel like an adult, while also being supported.
What is missing from our current services that you need? Or needed?
Destiny H: When I was in the YWCA Family Shelter, I was pregnant and sick. Shelter rules require each person to leave during the day time, without exception, but one staff member noticed I was sick and went to management (without me asking) to advocate for my needs. He continued to check in on me, give me snacks, and ask me how I was. This made a big difference for me. We need more staff that are trained to identify our needs, be caring, and advocate for us. Advocating is very important.
ANYONMOUS YOUTH: In the shelter, I had great casework, but what I needed was someone helping me with “what should you do” rather than “what have you done.” Young Adults need help planning for the long-term and understanding how to succeed. Programs that focused on me meeting with staff to discuss what actions I had taken were not helpful, as I didn’t know how to start. I also like that TLP allows me to make my own decisions and treats me as an adult, but still helps me with guidance and advice on next steps. TLP is more than a roof to sleep under for me.
What are five things you would change about current homeless services?
- Allow pregnant homeless youth or parenting homeless parents to be eligible for child care, prior to finding employment or enrolling in school.
- Have shelters and facilities specifically for Transitional Age Youth, as well as staff who are willing to go to the youth. Even if it’s unsafe.
- Have access to services in the shelters, such as job training, job linkage, and more.
- We need to find better ways to assess a youth’s needs, then have staff to help them with those needs. Everyone needs to be treated the same way.
- If a youth has family or friends who can provide housing, offer the youth transportation assistance to get to their family or friends.
- In the shelter, having to plan where to be each day makes it difficult to address needs and think with a clear head. I would change this rule.
- Programs unconsciously reinforce survival instincts and need to focus on changing those instincts.
What was most helpful to you going through Huckleberry House program(s)?
Destiny H: The staff I have worked with are helpful, they care, and I immediately felt I could trust them. At other agencies for Transitional Age Youth, I like that there is chaos with boundaries. We can make our own decisions, able to roam, have access to a gym, access to laundry, and are safe. We don’t have to worry about our stuff being stolen or not sleeping at night or worse. Transitional Age Youth want boundaries, safety, and nonjudgmental interactions with other people.
ANYONMOUS YOUTH: TLP “gives you room to breathe.” Staff also know and are accepting of when you fall off the wagon.
What else do you want people to know about your experience being homeless?
Destiny H: I have felt different and questioned the “system” since I was young. When I was diagnosed with ADHD/ADD, I was excluded from traditional classrooms and my peers at school started to bully me. Now, I am trying to make it on my own without any government assistance, after being homeless. When you have been homeless, you have to live differently and moving into housing is hard. I used to wake up in the middle of the night, in my new apartment, worrying someone would steal my stuff. Then I remembered where I was, but I was already having a panic attack.
ANYONMOUS YOUTH: I want people to understand that homeless persons or persons using welfare aren’t a stereotype of abusing the system, but people trying to get on their feet with no support. When your family isn’t there to support you, the system becomes your support. “We’re just people.” I want someone experiencing homelessness to know you don’t need to be embarrassed.