Coming Together for Homeless Youth
By Becca Bolden, Director of Grants Management
November 17, 2016
Last week, I had the privilege to represent Colorado Youth Matter at the Metro-Denver Forum on Homelessness Experienced by Youth, hosted by the Federal Regional Council on Homelessness for Region VIII. The day began with a forceful call to action considering that the election had occurred the night before; regardless of the election results, it didn’t change the fact that there were over 2,000 unaccompanied youth statewide and over 24,000 students lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate primary nighttime residence. Our work and collaboration is as important as ever before.
As attendees, we were incredibly lucky to hear directly from youth who had experienced homelessness in topical roundtables, as well as a youth panel that illuminated what policies and programs look like for young people who are navigating them with limited resources. And while issues of sexual health were not on the forefront of the day’s agenda in addressing homelessness among young people, there were many overlapping themes that are relevant to the work of Colorado Youth Matter.
Trusted Adults with a working knowledge of trauma-informed care
One of the primary organizations young people at the event were connected to was Urban Peak. A study done at Urban Peak found that 82% of youth surveyed reported having experienced a major life trauma such as abuse, assault, death of parent, etc. It is essential that any adults working with youth who are experiencing homelessness are trusted by the youth they are working with, often because they may be the only support system in the lives of these young people. In addition to being trusted, youth called for more training among caseworkers in trauma, so they can understand more deeply youth experiences and support them in moving forward and getting their needs met.
There must be funding to support these Trusted Adults at every level of interaction with youth experiencing homelessness, including caseworkers, educators and school administrators, therapists and clinicians, landlords and housing supervisors, lawyers, law enforcement and Department of Corrections staff – the many layers of the “system” young people are asked to navigate. Colorado Youth Matter can play an important role by providing Trusted Adult and trauma-informed approaches training to this vast array of professionals interacting with young people on a regular basis, so that all groups have the best interests of youth in the forefront of their minds.
Integrated and accessible healthcare
Youth attending the event shared the importance of having quality therapists available to them who understood trauma-informed practices. However, there were many barriers to receiving this care, including a lack of trained therapists available to organizations like Urban Peak, challenges with Medicaid billing processes, and transportation challenges in getting to appointments. They also expressed disappointment at the limited range of therapeutic methods available, despite some types such as EMDR being proven effective in dealing with trauma. Additionally, youth spoke of the challenges of having adequate legal documents, such as an ID or social security card, to get any of their housing, education and healthcare needs met.
Colorado Youth Matter can play an important role in educating clinicians of the barriers that homeless youth face, and train them in positive youth development approaches to meet youth where they are at. We need to advocate for changes in Medicaid billing to ensure that clinicians who can and want to provide services to youth experiencing homelessness can do so and bill for those services.
Stronger linkages between schools and community-based organizations and resources
Based on our work in the Maximizing Success project, we are well aware of the importance of linking schools and clinics to ensure youth receive wraparound support for both education and healthcare. This is even more relevant for youth who may be experiencing homelessness, as they often fall through cracks in the educational system. Because they change schools frequently they can fall behind in credits, which makes it challenging for them to connect and feel engaged with the school environment.
Youth participants in the event shared the important need schools can address by teaching basic life skills that they miss out on learning due to the transitional nature of their home lives. Beyond the important relationship and goal-setting skills taught in comprehensive sex education, young people who are experiencing homelessness or who may not have Trusted Adults in their lives miss out on how to do things many of us take for granted, such as basic care and hygiene practices, how to budget and complete taxes, how to do laundry, etc. Additionally, schools can do more to connect with shelters and organizations that work with youth in foster care and/or who are experiencing homelessness to encourage them to stay in school.
This day illuminated a huge need in the Denver community, and I left brimming with ideas and possibility. Even though Colorado Youth Matter doesn’t work in housing directly, we have our own calls to action for this issue, as our work needs to support all young people, especially youth disconnected from services, education, and our go-to community resources. The youth panelists’ call for better trained and more culturally responsive caseworkers and mentors can be met by CYM’s Trusted Adult trainings and programs. We can train clinicians we already work with about the needs of young people experiencing homelessness to ensure their responsiveness to barriers and support their efforts to ensure the process of obtaining health care services is accessible to young people. We can support school districts in recognizing the needs of homeless youth, and develop collaborative work-study programs to incentivize youth to attend and stay in school.
Homeless youth often find themselves juggling competing priorities of finishing school and achieving a degree versus getting a job to pay bills and meet immediate needs. That is a choice no young person should be forced to make, and it’s our job to put systems across the spectrum of youth health and well-being in place to ensure that is the case.