“Yesterday I had a librarian call and tell me they had a youth who told them he had run away from home and had been hanging out at the library for about three hours…he was seven. Seven years old. What do you do with a baby?”
Traci Starr is the Safe Place Coordinator at YouthCare and a longtime veteran of working with youth in social services. Direct and honest, she is calm and tough, and she is kind. She joins the zoom call with yesterday’s seven-year-old at the front of her mind as she continues, “That one got to me a little bit because I’m not used to dealing with little babies — seven years old is a baby. There’s no way a seven-year-old is capable of taking care of himself…the parents were frantic.”
Safe Place is a national prevention program for youth aged 12 -18 who are in need of immediate help. The program is wide and spread out, responding to more than 12,000 young people per year. Youth can text 4HELP (44357) or look for the Safe Place sign posted on the outside of buildings participating in the program. The time-trusted locales of libraries and schools hail as the main locations that youth reach out to, but a vast network of other sites also partner as Safe Place locations including arcades, restaurants, churches, stores, and the metro. Getting to youth quickly before a larger crisis or threat can find them is a main priority of the program.
Youth can text 4HELP (44357) or look for the Safe Place Sign
The reasons young people go on the run are complex and varied and they often include family conflict during the challenging experiences of adolescence; it’s not uncommon for youth in the turbulent throes of teen years, behavioral diagnoses, and family friction to bolt from home in response to agitation. In these cases, Safe Place acts as a safety net, catching youth before predators and harm can reach them, and works to reunite young people with their families where caseworkers can then offer mediating support.
On another side of things, Traci points out that many youth are fleeing home to escape danger, “Some of them have been experiencing abuse in their families for years; some of them have been handed from family member to family member to family member, or their mom gets evicted and their grandma can’t keep them anymore. There are a lot of different reasons for the trauma these kids go through. Another big factor is LGBTQ youth coming out to their families and their families not accepting them. I see that a lot. A lot. They don’t feel safe at home…I get many calls from kids who tell me ‘my parents are saying it’s unacceptable and I’m going to hell’.”
She looks ahead tiredly, “There are a lot of people who claim to be religious who don’t accept their own children.”
Traci’s sentiments are on point as LGBTQ+ youth are at particularly high risk of homelessness with the national percentage of homeless LGBTQ+ youth reaching up to 40%, and BIPOC LGBTQ+ youth doubling that number. With these soaring numbers also comes an increased vulnerability to trafficking and assault at over two times the rate of their non-LGBTQ+ peers. These vulnerable youth are caught in the painful grind of societal evolution as rejection from family over issues of gender identity and sexual orientation leads as the main cause of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness.
LGBTQ+ youth are at particularly high risk of homelessness with the national percentage of homeless LGBTQ+ youth reaching up to 40%, and BIPOC LGBTQ+ youth doubling that number.
One story stands out to Traci of a mid-teen girl struggling with her family over gender identity issues, “The police responded because the girl was claiming abuse from her mom. I really believed her and so did the lady who was helping her, who was her former teacher.” Unfortunately, they were unable to show proof of abuse, “so the police released her back to her mom and her sister, and her mom turned around and abandoned her at a fire station — kicked her out of the car at a fire station, and then the mom and sister stood in the parking lot of the fire station yelling hateful things and really derogatory things at this girl. I ended up getting her — who now goes by he/him — I ended up getting her in touch with Legal Counsel for Youth and Children and they filed a petition that gave the teacher custody of her, so she was able to move in with her teacher.”
“Any time we can take a youth who’s in an unsafe place and put them into a safe place, I feel like it’s a one-up for what we do in this program. The biggest reward is having the kids know that they’re safe,” she says.
“Any time we can take a youth who’s in an unsafe place and put them into a safe place, I feel like it’s a one-up for what we do in this program. The biggest reward is having the kids know that they’re safe.”Traci Starr
When asked what she has found over her years of experience to be the most effective way of connecting with youth and helping them to feel safe, she pauses to reflect and responds, “I’ve learned over the years that if you can keep a calm demeanor — it’s letting them tell you what they want to tell you without pushing them because when you push them they’re going to retract. Let them talk, and if they don’t want to talk, give them space. There’s nothing wrong with silence when you’re in a conversation with a youth. They might feel a little awkward in silence…but with silence, people have time to think about what they’re saying; it gives them time to respond.”
Whether it’s running from harm or running from the difficult experiences of adolescence, Safe Place stands fast as a wall of protection for all who need it. One of Traci’s favorite stories while working the hotline is of a mid-teen who had run away to Seattle from Oregon, “I got a call on the Safe Place hotline from a detective down in Oregon to let me know there was a 16-year old who had been spotted in Seattle; he had a medical condition where if he didn’t take his eye drops he could go blind, and his parents were frantic — they wanted him home. I sent an email to all of our centers and shelters and within five minutes I got a call from Orion Center saying ‘we’ve got him’. We were able to coordinate him staying at Orion Center until his parents drove from Oregon to pick him up. They said that when he saw his parents he started crying and said he couldn’t believe they’d come to get him and how happy he was to be going home. So I think he learned a really big lesson; it might have been a really hard lesson, but it worked out.”
“When he saw his parents he started crying and said he couldn’t believe they’d come to get him and how happy he was to be going home.”Traci Starr
In the case of the seven-year-old at the library, because of his young age the police would have needed to have been contacted if the boy would not talk to them — however, the librarians were able to connect with him so that Safe Place could directly reunite him with his family. Traci recounts, “They had a librarian who was a dad, so he knew how to talk to a seven-year-old. He was able to get permission from the little boy to call his parents because the boy said he had to have his medication. We were able to get him connected to his family and returned home.”
“If you don’t take care of yourself, you will burn out.”Traci Starr
After decades of working with youth and gravitating towards a lifestyle of supporting them, Traci stresses the importance of self-care in the social services field, “if you don’t take care of yourself, you will burn out.” There is an urgency to her tone as she emphasizes the point and says that she loves to take time out to fish and garden and connect with nature. These are rejuvenating lifelines that allow her to stay present in the often heavy fight to support the youth she serves, and they act to breathe joy and rest into a focused life of giving.
If you are interested in learning more about the Safe Place program or becoming a Safe Place partner, you can visit https://www.nationalsafeplace.org/ for more information, or contact Traci Starr at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in volunteering for Safe Place by accompanying Traci on in-person calls, please email Traci at email@example.com, or Shaina at firstname.lastname@example.org.