Today started with a visit from a homeless man by the name of Joe. I was in the office alone, and as the front door opened, I looked out of my office to see a gentleman standing in the reception area. He was a bit disheveled and look as though he were lost. As I said “good morning”, I realized that this would not be a “normal” visitor that we are used to. I then spent the next 15 minutes or so chatting with Joe, and listening as he shared some of his background, vulnerabilities, fears, and dreams. He spoke of becoming “disconnected” from support systems, school and work early in life. What dreams did Joe speak of? To live a “normal” life, with a job, a place to live consistently, and the ability to save and give back to others. WOW!
What Joe dreams of is not much different than what many of us dream of, but how did things take such a different direction for him? He told me that he was 37 years old and had now spent many years living on the streets. Many of his experiences were bad and some violent. He said that today was the day he decided that he wanted change in his life. Whether Joe actually takes action to change his life will likely be unknown to me, but I believe that he sincerely wanted change. However, I also know that it will be impossible without the right support system and resources needed to help him transition from the tattered existence that his life has become.
In this brief encounter, I had several realizations. Among them was the realization that we as a society must address preventative measures for the homeless issue by working with individuals who are still young and at-risk of becoming homeless. If we can have positive impact in the life of a young person, we have the opportunity to shift them in a direction that will keep them from becoming “Joe.”
According to the Measure of America, there are 4.9 million U.S. youth and young adults, ages 16-24, that are not in school or gainfully employed. This population is referred to as “disconnected youth.” Many young people who fall into this category are living in poverty or low-income circumstances, and are at a very high risk of homelessness. People are beginning to recognize that youth homelessness is a big issue, but one that has been quietly occurring for many years. A recent study from the University of Chicago found that 1 in 10 young adults age 18-25 have experienced some form of homelessness unaccompanied by a parent or guardian over the course of a year. That equates to approximately 3.5 million young adults. This tells us that the largest percentage of disconnected youth also experience homelessness at some point in their lives. This definition of homelessness ranges from “couch hoping” to living on the streets. There are several reasons why youth might become disconnected and homeless, but often there is a connection to the transition out of foster care at the age of 18.
Statistics show that once a foster youth ages out of the public system, if they don’t have the necessary support structure in place to aid them through the transition, they are highly at risk of becoming homeless and/or jobless, which can then also lead to more severe circumstances such as, criminal activity, incarceration, falling victim to human trafficking, and/or becoming substance abusers. Homelessness and joblessness are often the biggest issues faced, and once homeless, the other risk factors become greater as each day passes.
If a youth aging out of the system wants to attend college, they need additional assistance to ensure that they can access the funding available to assist with college costs. If they are unable to identify a plan to pay for college and living expenses, they are forced to drop out, and identify a means to survive.
When the various risk factors become a reality, it becomes much more difficult for the young person to recover. As an example, a young person who is forced to live on the streets, or “couch hop” between the homes of family members and/or friends, can remain in this state for an extended period of time. It affects their ability to keep a job, attend school consistently, and maintain normalcy in their daily routines. If they are forced to live on the streets and experience chronic homelessness, they can spend many years homeless and transitioning from place to place, plagued by a barrage of issues that serve as barriers to leading a normal, healthy life.
How can we help to positively impact these issues among our youth and young adults? First by teaching them that their circumstances don’t define who they are and can become. This can be hard initially for some to accept, especially when the circumstances are literally crap! Some young people have gone through so much trauma by the time that they reach young adulthood that the trauma has defined who they are. And worst yet, the ability to adapt to the circumstances has often led to greater mental and physical trauma. In these cases, health professionals become a key part of the support system needed to move forward in a positive way. In addition to healthcare professionals, studies have repeatedly demonstrated that mentors and coaches can also be key to aiding in the development of the mental toughness and accountability needed to move past challenges, and to gain access to critical resources to create the opportunities needed to create self-sufficiency. However, the success of mentoring and coaching is consistency, and the ability to develop trust and rapport between the mentor and mentee.
When youth and young adults have access to the mentorship and coaching needed to assist in normalizing their lives and creating consistency, they are ready to receive the knowledge that can lead to freedom. This leads to the next phase of helping disconnected youth to become connected by teaching them the skills needed to become the answer to their own problems and the change they wish to see in the world. By teaching them the soft skills and job skills needed, they can begin to prepare for the workforce and being an active member of society. Soft skills focused on personal growth and leadership are important in developing character. Other training in core areas such as financial literacy, economy, business and public policy begin to prepare them not just for the workforce, but to take ownership and responsibility for stability in their lives, as well as, in their families and communities.
It is critical to offer disconnected youth the alternative perspective that regardless of the circumstances that they come from, they can learn to earn and manage money, and become leaders in business and community. They can begin to see that they have great ideas that can make them valuable to employers or can even allow them to start their own businesses. They can also begin to recognize that they have an important voice, and that through the right resources and exposure, they CAN become the solution to solving the problems that they see and have even been victim to.
Our mission at Advancing The Seed, Inc. is to develop strong leaders for business and community engagement so that they can create financial stability for themselves, their families and their communities. This is a big challenge to undertake and we recognize that we are only one tiny piece of the much bigger puzzle required to address poverty and its close social determinant relatives such as, homelessness, joblessness, and food insecurity to name a few. We believe that through partnership with multiple sectors of the community, we have a shot at positively impacting young people so that the risk factors associated with poverty can be greatly reduced.