When she worked with homeless youth as a case manager, Annie Cotton kept wishing she could have started with each one of them sooner. By the time they walked through her door, they had fallen through every crack in every system, and usually had little to no family support.
That’s a sentiment shared throughout YouthCare. What if we could help keep young people from ending up on the streets in the first place?
In 2012, we launched Prevention program, including a partnership with Seattle Public Schools to provide two Care Coordinators to work with ninth graders enrolled at its seven Interagency Academy sites. Annie joined us in October 2012, along with Sarah Reed, a former YouthCare case manager with extensive experience at YouthCare’s James W. Ray Orion Center.
In supporting students at risk of homelessness, Annie and Sarah do a little bit of everything: connecting young people and families to benefits like health insurance and food stamps, finding rental assistance for a family about to lose its housing, even supplying basic needs. “Sometimes the most helpful thing is providing them with transportation or just answering questions,” Sarah says. “It’s that small stuff, like getting them clothing, that really adds up to what this larger idea of prevention is.”
As with every YouthCare program, the first step is to engage young people and build their trust. That takes time, and Sarah and Annie spend hours on outreach every week at each of the Interagency Academy sites.
Then, it’s a matter of figuring out exactly how to help. “One of the hardest things is to get the students to self-identify what their needs are,” Sarah says. One young woman described bouts of depression and severe anxiety. “She would never have identified, ‘Oh, I need to be in counseling’” – but Sarah was able to help her recognize that need and refer her to an appropriate resource.
Since there are many students in the public schools who are already homeless, our Prevention program also serves as a way to provide them support. Most clients, though, are still only at risk of either losing housing or being kicked out of their homes. Thus, the engagement process extends to families, which can be a complicated process. “You have to walk this line in many situations,” explains Sarah. “You’re providing something that the parent isn’t able to provide on their own, something that they feel they should be able to provide.”
Often, these young people do have active and engaged parents who want the best for their children. Still, they are facing barriers of their own, sometimes greater barriers than the Care Coordinators can help them overcome. As Annie says, “It’s hard, when you can get the ID for the child that costs $45 – but the family owes so much in utilities, or their house is about to be foreclosed on, and they’re looking to you, and you don’t have something for them.”
In response, YouthCare launched a small Prevention Fund, which can be used as a one-time resource for rental assistance, moving costs, utility bills, or to meet other crises for families who are low-income but not yet homeless. It builds credibility with parents: they see we’re committed to helping the family succeed. Most important, it can stave off disaster. With so many of the youth we serve in our other programs ending up alone on the street because their families lost their homes, it’s a crucial ounce of prevention.
The start of the school year means Annie and Sarah will be back in school – along with a whole new crop of ninth graders in great danger of falling into homelessness. We’re proud that, in this community, YouthCare has set up another front line in the battle.