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Stopping the Cycle of Youth Homelessness

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Lori Whitted Youth Ministry Leadership Research Paper March 19, 2007

Stopping the Cycle of Youth Homelessness Organization: Orion Center sponsored by YouthCare, Seattle, Washington Contact: Eric Charaba, Case Worker Problem Stated: Stopping the cycle of youth homelessness? Introduction

An average of 800 youth roams the streets of Seattle without a permanent place to lay their head. At times there can even be as many as two thousand on the street. Services, that are available, find they are full to capacity during these times. The majority of these services are temporary solutions, providing a daily meal and a bed to sleep in for one night. And they only get that bed if they are one of the first to be in line. Once the beds are full s/he finds they are searching for a place to lay their head for the night; a place that is not very appealing. Most services find they are merely contributing to the management of homelessness rather than finding a permanent solution.

Most people think that a homeless youth is just some kid who ran away from home; therefore, s/he chose to be in the situation they are in. But, the numbers show us it is less than 2-8% that are run aways. Most are there due to other circumstances in their lives. These contributing factors are many; abusive parents, mental illness, foster care has run out and they are forced out of their home, learning disabilities, and emotional trauma; to only name a few. Rarely is it due to economic reasons, like adults who find themselves without a job and one paycheck away from being on the streets. Youths find themselves on the streets because the adults were unable to care for them. And shockingly forty-nine percent of these 800+ youth are under the age of 15.

What happens to a youth when they end up on the street without an adult to care for them? Eric, a case worker for Orion House, shared with me that these young adults find themselves faced with the dilemma of making adult choices and there is usually no one there to help them decide which choice to make. These kids become very lonely and isolated. They will do anything to make a friend and to feel accepted. These adult choices usually lead to a sexually active life, which, in turn will lead to teen pregnancy. Then what are their choices; have an abortion, raise a child on the street or let the state take your baby away? None of these choices are very appealing. They find themselves in a dilemma.

What is a child to do? Where is a child to go? What can we do as a community to help stop this cycle of youth homelessness? These are a few of the questions I would like to attempt to answer. This topic is broad and there are many answers. Therefore, I would like to narrow my topic to the idea of creating a program called “Mentor a Homeless Youth”. If we were to come up with a way to educate the community and challenge people to care for these youth than these youth would find themselves with the opportunity to turn their lives around in a safe environment.

Proverbs tells us to “Train a child in the way s/he should go, and when s/he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). From this one verse alone we come to understand the importance in educating our young people in how to live this life, but most of these kids have not been afforded this opportunity. “Adults recognize the importance of close, one-to-one relationships with youth…a recent Gallop poll, (shows us) 75 percent of adults reported that it is “very important” to have meaningful conversations with children and youth, yet fewer than 35 percent reported actually having such conversations.” “Laurence Steinberg has observed that few adolescents have even one significant, close relationship with an adult outside the family prior to reaching adult hood.” So, if children are not having significant adult conversations and have no significant adult influence then they are left to their own demise. Most find themselves being raised by their peers, the television and by watching those around them. So, good and bad, they will take in what they see and hear and go with what they decide to be right. Therefore, as Eric told me, we have children on the street forced to make adult decisions without adult support or influence.

Orion Center is a good starting point for kids that are trying to find new direction. They provide services to kids from the ages of 13 to 21. Kids can receive their mail here, use the phone, do their laundry, take a shower, finish high school, and receive the support of a case manager. They can receive clothing and hygiene products and two square meals a day. A job training program is offered, helping these children to become employable so they can support themselves. Orion Center has no permanent housing offered on site but they provide support and information where kids can go to find these places.

YouthCare, an affiliate of Orion Center offers short-term and long-term housing. At each of these locations kids are provided stability, set goals, skills classes and personal responsibility. The goal is to help these young people gain success as they move into adulthood.

Volunteer opportunities seem to be minimal at these two organizations according to the website. It stated that they were currently at full capacity for individual volunteers. The positions most readily sought were people who could provide basic tutor skills and groups that could provide meals. I saw no mention of needs for volunteers to mentor a homeless youth. The most prominent organization that offers for volunteers to mentor a youth is Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Through this program people are afforded the opportunity to mentor a youth and spend time with them on a weekly/monthly basis. There are specific guidelines which I will not go into here. But what I am suggesting goes a step further than what this program actually provides.

What I am suggesting would entail, long-term commitment, a desire to really make a difference in a homeless youth’s life and the ability to, in some cases, financially support, to some extent, that youth while going through the transition of improving their life. But how can we make it happen? Are there people willing to do this? Where do we begin?

Public awareness is always the first step. Most of us do not think about what is not in front of us. Most people sail through life meeting their own needs and just doing what they have to do daily to survive. Matthew 24:12 tells us that “…the love of most will grow cold”. I would dare say this is already happening. The majority of people think of no one but themselves. We live in a very self-centered world, feeling or taking no responsibility for anyone but ourselves. But, there are those out there that do care, and for them to know the need, they must hear about it.

I know the first time I became aware was because of a friend who told me about a homeless young women. The story of this woman profoundly affected my life and I wanted to do something about it. Some of her life choices had not been perfect, but she found herself wanting to turn around and go a new direction. She needed the love and support of someone who would offer her the opportunity to do so. I was able to provide that opportunity and it blessed her and me.

There are many places to go and speak and share the needs of the community; churches, clubs, businesses, schools, and many others. We have to be willing to beat the pavement and share the need if we are going to find the few that are willing to help. They have to be contacted; we cannot wait for them to contact us. Informational brochures can be made and sent out in mass mailings. Flyers can be put up on bulletin boards. I am only naming a few ideas, but the point is made. When a need is present, we must present it if we are going to find the help we need. It has to go beyond tutoring and providing meals. I believe if we present the challenge, people will step forward.

In Matthew 25 we find Jesus telling a story about separating the sheep from the goats. The sheep represent the people that did good things and the goats represent those who did bad things. These good deeds consisted of feeding, clothing, and housing the poor, caring for the sick and those in prison. In verse 40 he says “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers (youth) of mine, you did for me.” Therefore, as a Christian, I believe we are given responsibility for those that are struggling in life, and that includes the homeless youth.

What does mentoring a homeless youth look like and what would that entail? I see this as having two parts; one would be that you have a youth that sincerely wants to make significant changes in his life and willing to take the steps to do that. Second, there would be a family or individual that would be willing and able to make this happen. This program would be in addition to the already fine services that Orion Center and YouthCare provide. I see it as a necessity that should be created and offered.

To be a successful mentor/supporter of a homeless youth it will take a great deal of commitment. The person offering the mentoring/support would need to go through a back ground check, it would need to be proven that they could be trusted and depended on. Successful mentoring does not work if the individual offering it will bail when things get hard. Also, there would need to be a training program, this would include skills development, and what those skills are that can be developed. Volunteer training is important to help the volunteer to see and understand exactly what they are undertaking. Yes, there will be times and situations when it is not a good match between mentor/mentee, but all efforts should be made, once the persons are matched, to make it work. This will be the first time for most of these kids that someone has cared enough to make a difference.

These kids have dreams and desires of what they want to take place in their lives. They only need someone to help them establish these goals and to assist them in seeing they can have a promising future. Change can take place with hard work and perseverance. Change does not come without struggle. There is a quote by Toni Morrison that goes like this; “She gathers me. The pieces that I am, she gathers them and gives them back to me in the right order”. Most of these children hold their shattered lives in their hands not knowing where to begin—they need someone to help them put the pieces back together again.

In the book Stand By Me the author speaks how important it is to maintain this mentor relationship for as long as possible. “Youth who were in matches that terminated within the first three months suffered significantly larger drops of feelings in self-worth and perceived scholastic competence than control youth. On the other hand, youth who were in matches that lasted more than twelve months reported significantly higher levels of self-worth, social acceptance, and scholastic competence…this pattern of findings suggests that short-lived matches can have a detrimental effect on youth and that the impact of mentoring grows as the relationship matures.” The homeless youth has lost all stable relationships in their lives. So offering some stability can make a lasting effect that can make a world of difference.

Of course the above is projecting the ideal. The reality is that things happen and at times the mentor relationship will be terminated. A child may move on to somewhere else, there may be severe personality conflicts and many other reasons. But the point is made, a long-term commitment is most effective and every effort to keep the relationship maintained is important. This is what is most beneficial for the young adult.

I addressed the need for making the need known a little earlier and the efforts that need to be made. Recruiting is part of the process and it can be long and tedious. It feels like there are no people out there that care, but they are there—they just need to be found. One program advertises by asking, “Have you ever thought about being a mentor? Think about it now. You can do it. It’s easier than you think. Sometimes it’s work—mostly it’s fun.”

The success of the match will depend on the quality of the time spent together. “The strongest contributing factor to all three measures of relationships was the extent to which the youth and mentors engaged in social activities (for example, having lunch, just hanging out together). Studies show that age difference is really not a factor; it is the ability to relate and share common interest. Scripture gives us very good advice in the area of relating to others; “love your neighbor as you love yourself” and “treat others as you would have them treat you” (Matt. 22:39; 7:12). If we can keep these golden rules in mind, anyone can build strong relationships.

There should also be a benchmark for measuring the success of the mentor/mentee relationship. This will open the door for each person to share how they think the relationship can improve or how good it is going. Steps should always be made to keep the doors of communication open. There are many good books to be read in this area and they can offer good guidelines on what it means to have good communication.

How and when will this relationship take place? I have several ways in which I believe this can happen. YouthCare offers housing where kids are placed to help them move beyond homeless life. These kids would be great candidates for a mentor to be in their lives that would meet them on a weekly basis. An individual who could commit time to helping to develop the youths’ life; doing what I stated earlier, like having lunch, going to a movie, just doing life together. This will open doors for the mentor to give guidance and support to help the youth reach their goals.

Orion Center has people that go out on the street and they offer food and supplies. Establish a volunteer network that would help to get people on the street to help with this effort on a long-term basis. The effort could go a step further if the individual is consistent and it will help to build relationships on the street, which in turn could turn into guidance and direction for these young adults.

The other option that I believe could work is to place a youth in a willing participant’s home. I have personally seen this be successful. I believe there are people willing to go the extra mile to offer shelter and long-term support. This home would be like a foster home except the individual might not receive financial support from the state. Either way, I believe it can work. This mentor/mentee relationship is more long-term then the others. It means seeing the person through completing their education and getting a job and helping them establish life. This can take 1+ year’s to happen. It does not mean you are paying for their schooling, or all their personal needs. It means a home is provided and food is supplied. This takes care of their monetary need which opens them up to take care of their other needs. When someone is released to not have to worry about where they are going to sleep or eat it can relieve a lot of pressure and help them to be able to establish a job and finish school. I believe there are people willing to do this. If I am willing, there has to be more.

I understand this is a huge commitment and most people would not be willing, but there are some and they can only be found by voicing the need. When we give options people will step forward to help in anyway they can.

I believe that creating mentoring relationships can help to some extent the cycle of youth homelessness. It is only one facet not a cure. If awareness can be established in our churches, clubs, and other organizations, people can be found to help mentoring become part of the program. To help break the cycle we have to be willing to establish the time to build relationships. There will be hardships and failures along the way, but there will be those that are successful and that one changed life can change many more. Here are top ten reasons to be a mentor: 1. Instill values in your mentees. 2. Develop their leadership (life) skills. 3. Open their minds to greater possibilities. 4. Increase their self-image through your willingness to invest time. 5. Counsel them on life’s critical issues. 6. Encourage service and a giving mentality (you model this by mentoring). 7. Decrease self-centeredness (for all involved). 8. Strengthen your relationship. 9. To establish in them the golden rules of the bible. 10. Increase the value of your life by leaving a legacy.

When we give of ourselves we are rewarded doubly. We have the blessing of seeing a person’s life changed and our lives change as well. This process can offer one opportunity to help reduce youth homelessness. A young person’s life can be changed by those that are willing to give of themselves. “Why did you do all this for me?” [Wilbur asked]. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.” “You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift my life a trifle. Heaven knows, anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” (E. B. White, Charlottes Web)

Bibliography

1. Bass, Deborah, Helping Vulnerable Youth, Runaway & Homeless Adolescents in the United States, NASW Press, United States of America: 1992 2. Homeless Youth: The Saga of “Pushouts” and “Throwaways” in America, Report of the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate Ninety-Sixth Congress, Second Session, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington: December 1980 3. Levine, Susan, Background on Homeless Youth In Seattle, June 29, 2004, <http://www.seattle.gov/humanservices/fys/homelessyouth/default.htm>, (March 19, 2007) 4. Mickelson, Roslyn Arlin, Children on the Streets of the Americas, Routledge, New York, New York: 2000 5. Rhodes, Jean E., Stand by Me, The Risk and Rewards of Mentoring Today’s Youth, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts: 2002 6. Shane, Paul G., What About America’s Homeless Children, Hide and Seek, Sage Publications, Inc., Thousand Oaks, California: 1996 7. Stronge, James H., and Cheri Tenhouse, Educating Homeless Children: Issues and Answers, Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, Bloomington, Indiana: 1990 8. Successful Youth Mentoring, Group, Loveland, Colorado: 1998 9. van der Ploeg, Jan, and Evert Scholte, Homeless Youth, Sage Publications, Inc., Thousand Oaks, California: 1997 10. Ward, B., YouthCare, n.d., < http://www.youthcare.org/aboutus.cfm>, (March 19, 2007)

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