My journey working with homeless young adults began eleven years ago. I interviewed for a case manager position at Youth on Fire (YOF), a daytime drop-in center for homeless young adults ages 14-24 in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA. I had just moved from the Midwest, and remember saying to YOF’s youth hiring committee, “I don’t know the resources around here yet, but I can promise that if you let me into your lives, I will be the biggest cheerleader you’ve ever had.” They did let me into their lives, and over the next eleven years, they taught me not simply to cheer for them, but how to support them as they navigated through the world. Below are some of the most important lessons I learned in over a decade of sharing laughter and tears, tragedy and triumph, and despair and hope with an incredible community of young people.
1) Be authentic.
At a speaking event at a social work school where YOF members shared their experiences and advice, an audience member asked, “I am a white girl from the suburbs who has experienced a lot of privilege – how can I connect with kids who have had very different lives than mine?” D was a 21-year-old who had been kicked out of his home for not getting along with his stepmother and had since been bouncing from juvenile facilities to the streets, and from the streets to adult homeless shelters and jails. He responded by saying, “Don’t pretend to be anything you are not. I can smell fake from ten miles away – if you listen to country music, don’t pretend to like rap. I’ll see through it in a second and won’t waste my time with you from there. But if you are okay with your country-loving self, I will respect your confidence and then I will respect you.”
2) Earn the trust of young adults with patience and consistency.
Homeless young adults have been let down by every system and person that was supposed to protect them. If they are on the streets as young adults, this means that their family, their schools, the justice system, and the child welfare system have failed them. They have no reason to believe you and your program will be any different. When I first began working at the drop-in center, I spent the first three weeks playing Monopoly with the members. I would go home and rage against capitalist culture, but go back to work the next day and agree to play again. The first day of my fourth week, a member who had asked to play a number of times came into my cubicle and asked if I could help her find her birth mother. After that, the requests kept coming. I had proven that I was there –that I was consistent and trustworthy. Every request – whether it is for food or socks or systems navigation - is an opportunity to meet a need and prove that you are worthy of their trust.
3) Be curious.
Soon after the Monopoly games ended and I began my case management work, members began telling me about their experiences. Regardless of one’s personal experiences, there will be many aspects of the lives of homeless young adults you may not understand. This is a great opportunity to be authentic (see “smell fake” above) as well as build a relationship. Most people, and especially most young adults, love to teach things to people, and especially to people who are in positions of power. When I began working with homeless young adults, I had never met anyone doing sex work. The first member to mention that she was exchanging sex for money spent an hour telling me about how it worked, how much she charged, how other people were involved, and what the risks and benefits were. Whether the topic was sex work, Juggalos, heroin or new drugs like DXM and Molly, being transgender, the importance of a street family, or how one squats in foreclosed houses, each conversation was an opportunity to learn something new, build a positive relationship, and show youth that their voices and lives matter.
4) Understand trauma and how to respond (especially if you are not a clinician).
While I listened, I noted that many of the experiences members disclosed involved violence, loss, abuse, and neglect. As someone with a degree in Education (rather than social work), I often felt helpless to respond in ways other than, “Have you talked to a therapist about this?” Their response was usually, “No, but I’m talking to you.” It felt like they were dumping their trauma onto me, and I had few tools to respond. I sought out classes, trainings, and readings on trauma, and I discovered I didn’t need to be a therapist to bear witness, release shame, help identify trauma’s lasting impact and triggers, and appreciate each individual’s resilience. I learned that I didn’t need to fix it, fix them, or make it better – I just needed to acknowledge their struggle, and acknowledge them as individuals. I began to see many of their behaviors, reactions, and decisions as coping responses to traumatic experiences. Once I understood their behaviors through a trauma lens, I was able to take their responses less personally, respond holistically, contain appropriately, and see them in context. It made the work less stressful, less draining, and ultimately more successful.
5) Recognize and appreciate their survival and resilience.
Pity can be toxic in this work, as it often leaves the recipient embarrassed and disempowered. Instead, find ways to highlight their survival and resilience – homeless youth have learned to navigate complex systems on their own and have found ways to survive and cope with the overwhelming challenges of street life. They have survived because they are resilient and resourceful, and there is a deep honor in being let into their lives. Let them know this both by what you say and in how you say it. Figure out something admirable each young person has done, and acknowledge and appreciate it. As humans we are wired for connection, and whatever might have taken place, we all want to have someone who thinks we are fantastic – even if we don’t feel that way about ourselves. Allow them to be the best versions of themselves with you, and they may eventually begin to see themselves through your eyes.
6) Create opportunities for young adults to share their expertise and make meaningful contributions.
This is the basis of positive youth development theory (PYD), and is especially true with young people who are marginalized and often unseen in the world. At YOF, there are various ways for people to make meaningful contributions. Members participate in a monthly Youth Advisory Board, where they give staff feedback on what is going well and what they want to be different. Their suggestions have led to numerous changes in YOF policies. For example, the Advisory Board requested that we become a “pet-friendly space,” and three months later we had an “animal agreement,” animal cages, and more youth and their pets in the center. There is also a “hiring committee” where members, with staff support, conduct the final interview for any staff applying to work and make hiring recommendations. This results in more of the right people being hired (see “smell fake people” above) and member buy-in for each of the staff.
One of the members who was on my hiring committee used to put his arm around my shoulder and say, “I hired you – don’t forget that you work for me!” And he was right - I did work for them. And if they felt like I wasn’t doing my job, they had a right to hold me accountable.
The YOF Speakers’ Bureau was one of the best places for members to share their expertise. We trained members in public speaking and ways of sharing their stories, and then brought them as a “panel of experts” to speak about their experiences to classes, organizations, and policy makers. They especially loved going to social work classes and giving advice on how to avoid many of the pitfalls they had experienced with well-meaning but ineffective professionals.
After visiting one class, a member who had worked with over 20 social workers commented, “I can’t believe that yesterday these people were walking by me as I panhandled on the corner, and today they’re listening to me in a class, and telling me that this is the most important thing they’ve learned in graduate school. Maybe I do have something to teach people.”
7) Honor the priorities and decisions of homeless youth.
One of the most difficult things about this work is watching people you genuinely care about make decisions you wish they wouldn’t. They make decisions about relationships, substance use, criminal activity, money, housing, employment and a million other things that you can clearly see are going to have negative consequences. Your role is to help them accurately assess the situation, minimize the harm (through overdose prevention, safety planning, safer sex options), reinforce their agency, communicate that you will always support and care about them, and hope that they are alive to process with you on the other end.
A clinical supervisor used to say to me, “If you can just keep them alive and uninfected until 25, you’ve given their brain a chance to mature enough to do the right things.” My mantra to YOF members became “It’s not the decision that I would make, or necessarily want you to make, but ultimately it’s your life and you get to live it.” This mantra emanated from a deep-seated belief that nobody saves anybody else. People save themselves—with love and support and an unending belief in their ability to change. If they feel that you will judge or shame them (or do the “I-told-you-so” dance), they will not come back to you when they have made a mistake. However, if you create the space for them to feel accepted, you can help support them in the aftermath so that they stay healthy and hopeful enough to learn how to make better decisions.
When I was travelling in Australia I saw a quote by an Aboriginal activist that said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, then take my hand, and let us work together.”
Fundamentally, to work well with homeless young adults, we have to let the best parts of ourselves connect with the best parts of them, and walk together on the path towards healing. I am so thankful for the hands that have held mine, and have let me hold theirs.
We are all bound up together in this journey, and I look forward to the work that we will continue to do together.
Image by Mary Poor