In honor of Homeless Youth Awareness month, we are shedding light on the struggles, misconceptions, and realities around homeless youth and highlighting the work that’s occurring across Los Angeles to make sure young people don’t become the next generation of chronically homeless.
Many young people out on the street are either running from violence, rejection from their families, or have come out of the foster care and probation systems. They have suffered deep trauma from violence, neglect, and constant separation during a critical time in their development. Many have never had a trusted relationship with an adult. Add the high cost of living in Los Angeles, student loans, and insufficient pay, and it’s no wonder youth are so at risk for homelessness.
How Youth CES are filling in the gaps.
According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) website, the Coordinated Entry System (CES) is the “county-wide, collaborative network that coordinates supportive services and housing resources for homeless households.”
But different approaches must be taken for single adults, versus families with children. Two years ago, the CES realized the additional need for a youth system to address the specialized needs of young adults experiencing homelessness (often referred to as Transitional Age Youth, or TAY). The drop-in centers that are now a part of that system have become highly valuable safe havens for young people experiencing homelessness.
Unique Approaches for Youth
We reached out to several service providers of homeless youth services to find out more about the methods they use to help their clients build a stable support system and life skills needed to be self-sufficient.
- Low-Barrier Accommodations
In order to make these sites as appealing and accessible to homeless youth as possible, they are highly accommodating with little to no eligibility requirements, aside from age. They address core needs such as food, showers, clothing and washing machines, hygiene products, and computers with wifi. But they go much further than just that. Each member has a different story, so they try to appeal to a diverse range of needs and goals. For example, some of SPY’s members keep dogs for protection and companionship, so they allow them on-site - they’ll even feed and watch them!
- Co-location -> Everything is On-Site
Providers know it takes much more than basic needs to address homelessness, and they make sure it’s all in the same place. Experts from different organizations provide healthcare, mental health counseling, education and employment guidance, crucial documentation and legal assistance, workshops on life skills such as financial literacy and relationship building, and care coordination all in the same building so members don’t fall through the cracks searching for those needs elsewhere.
- Fun and Enrichment
It takes more than just addressing basic needs to give life meaning and purpose. On-site facilities feature an art center, field trips to museums, and various workshops such as theatre or graphic design. It can be hard to open up about one’s struggles, so art provides another avenue for self-expression. Also, the friendly staff and other members provide a social network that provides the support and understanding needed to rebuild trust and inspiration.
- Community Partnerships
When it comes to raising a child, “It takes a village.” These centers coordinate regular meetings, presentations, and awareness events to educate partners and the community on better strategies, solutions, and policies.
Through these relationships, they receive many resources, funding, and volunteers from organizations like Kaiser, the Department of Mental Health, local churches, and corporations. Snapchat donated showers to the Safe Place for Youth (SPY) facility. Partnerships with universities and housing providers can create programs like the “Helping Hands Project,” at the LA Valley College to connect homeless students to vital resources.
Elected Officials like LA County Supervisor, Sheila Kuehl, can advocate for policies that streamline a client’s path towards safe housing while providing appropriate support to sustain those housing placements. They also work with the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and foster family agencies, such as The Village Family Services, to make sure incoming foster youth are matched to an appropriate family who will also support them through their transition into adulthood.
- Bringing Youth to the Table
William Lehman, manager of LAHSA’s Youth CES, also spoke about reversing the adultist trend in youth services. The belief that adults know what young people need best has long been a barrier for their engagement in such programs. To combat this, The Village Family Services and SPY have peer programs that hire recently-housed youth be the first point of contact for other youth seeking resources at their drop-in centers.
“I’ve noticed when I do the intakes, sometimes they’ll ask a question that if I can answer with my own experience, it helps them open up a little bit more and understand that the resources here are helpful,” said one of SPY’s peer resource navigators.
Youth Drop-in Centers - An Inside Look
Safe Place for Youth (SPA 5, West LA)
In addition to basic needs, this hip and "with-it" facility also has an art room, workshops from graphic design to financial literacy, gardens, and a basketball court. They'll even watch your dog! "TAY youth know what they need. We want to support them, wherever they're at," said Mischa DiBattise, their drop-in manager.
In the new year, they will add 20 transitional two-year housing slots, doubling the current number available in SPA 5, through the "Roots to Grow" Program, in partnership with Venice Community Housing.
The Village Family Services (SPA 2, San Fernando Valley)
In addition to comprehensive housing services for homeless youth, The Village Family Services’ Drop-in Center provides basic care (warm meals, hot showers, clean clothes) coupled with job placement, educational support, trauma-informed therapy, an on-site health clinic, and an expressive arts program.
On April 7th in North Hollywood, their 2k & Family Festival, "Take on the Streets" will raise awareness & funds for critical programs benefiting homeless youth.
Zachery Scott, VP of Development & Communications, said they've been successful at getting the public educated on the issue of youth homelessness and empowered to make a difference."We just have to give people an avenue in which they can make an impact. At the end of the day, people genuinely want to contribute and help others," Zachery said.
Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services (SPA 3, San Gabriel Valley)
Understanding that it takes time to work through the trauma of whatever led a child to the streets, their Rapid Rehousing Program lasts for over a year. Sarah Hoppmeyer, who oversees that program, is grateful that the county recognizes this need and funds for the care coordination required.
"The Youth Coordinated Entry System creates an opportunity for providers who used to work in silos to come together to address youth homelessness as a community," said Sarah Hoppmeyer, Youth CES Regional Coordinator & LMFT.
Getting Rid of the Stigma
“A youth experiencing homelessness could be right in front of you and you wouldn’t know it.”
- Sarah Hoppmeyer
Homeless youth have been historically underrepresented and invisible, often hiding from the unfortunate stigmas attached to them, such as laziness. Many are able to couch-surf or sleep in their car as they work to earn their college degree, so they’re not as visible. But they are some of the most resilient, hopeful, and hardworking people you will ever meet.
“Young adults will surprise you. You may think they won’t make it, but they will prove you wrong. When youth are provided with the skills to live independently and the opportunity to recognize their self-worth, they will rise to the challenge. The youth we work with are resilient - they have experienced a lot of hardship in their lives but they keep moving forward.” - Sarah Hoppmeyer, the CES Youth Regional Coordinator for SPA 3 in San Gabriel Valley at Hathaway-Sycamores Child & Family Services.
*A Note on LGBTQ Overrepresentation*
There are many homeless youth who have been rejected from their families for being gay, queer, or transgender, and need LGBTQ-centered care. However, there are those who may not identify as LGBTQ, but have been forced to engage in “survival sex” in order to get basic needs. It’s important for drop-in centers and others to recognize these distinctions in data collection and the care that’s administered.
We also spoke to several real experts on youth homelessness - those who have been there themselves - to learn more about their perspective on homelessness and how adults can best support them. Here are 10 things Homeless Youth want you to know.
The Value of the Youth CES System and 211 LA
Union Station Homeless Services in Pasadena is not a part of the Youth CES, but has been around to help that population for decades. It was there that one Donald Perry, who had been homeless for 36 years, met his future wife. He remembers standing outside the facility with his friends during the winter, waiting for it to open with food and open arms. For the next three years, they saved their social security checks in the mailbox the facility provided, got sober, and had their son Robert. During that time, Donald also took night classes on how to get a mortgage, and put down his deposit on a house in Pasadena after he completed the class.
Before the Youth CES was put in place, the personal connections we spoke to knew very little of the help that was out there and relied on government assistance, like social security or FAFSA if they were college students. They found more solace and support in personal relationships. Luckily, all of them have found housing and stability through their own resilience and positivity shared with each other.
The resources and safety that these drop-in centers provide are godsends for homeless young adults who often have nowhere else to turn for help. But many of our personal connections didn’t know such services were out there. This is why 211 LA is such a crucial resource. If everyone knew they could call 2-1-1, they could find help when they wouldn’t otherwise have found it except through a lucky referral or word of mouth from friends.