My first real encounter with young people affected by homelessness occurred in the month of August last year. Before this experience, homelessness was an issue that I observed at a distance. I had only had one meaningful conversation with a person affected by homelessness, but I did not truly appreciate the impact it had on people’s lives.
I had recently started a part-time graduate internship at a nonprofit near Government Center, but I wanted to be more involved in local community service. One of my mentors from Assumption College introduced me to Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a nonprofit that enables high-risk, runaway and homeless youth become healthy and productive adults. After meeting with some of Bridge’s staff, I signed up to volunteer with the Transitional Day Program, supporting the work of counselors and case managers who helped the young men and women get back on their feet.
My Volunteer Experience
It was during my weekly volunteer hours at Bridge when I began to understand some of the challenges that homeless youth have to overcome on a daily basis. They must adapt to the system of shelters, soup kitchens, work programs, and clinics in their journey to being housed and independent.
During my conversations with some of the clients in the program, they shared some of the additional burdens they faced with being homeless. One client told me that he had developed insomnia, and spent many sleepless nights walking around the city. Another young man discussed his experience with the judicial system, having to balance his meetings with his probation officer with his other obligations such as looking for work and housing.
Volunteering at Bridge was not always easy. The toughest challenge I faced was dealing with the emotional drain from working with some clients. There were times when heated arguments broke out, or when some clients were dealing with really difficult circumstances and I found myself unable to help. Sometimes I got so sensitive to the foul language that some clients used that I would try to cope by listening to music or reading a book.
In those moments, I really began to appreciate the dedication and tenacity of the case managers and counselors who could immerse themselves in each client’s problems and have enough in their reserves to deal with multiple clients and an inexperienced volunteer.
There were high points as well. When clients had a successful interview or made substantial progress, it validated the effort that Bridge had invested in those young men and women. One of my happiest days was when I met one of the clients in the city after a successful job interview. Having been able to witness his progress made it all worthwhile.
I also had a great conversation with a young man who wanted to take the best lessons he had learned from being homeless and share them with younger kids. He envisioned having camping sessions like Outward Bound, where kids could learn those lessons and avoid unhealthy situations.
I stopped volunteering at Bridge to focus on the GRE and graduate school applications, but the issue of youth homelessness was never far from my mind. When one of the programs I applied to asked me to propose solutions to a public policy or public management problem, I had already started working on my response. During my time volunteering at Bridge, I began reading Spare Change News and I knew it would be a great place to start looking for information. Bridge’s director also suggested that I also get information from the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH).
The Challenge of Youth Homelessness
According to data provided by the NAEH, 5 to 7.7 percent of youth in the United States deal with homelessness each year. The percentages are even higher in major metropolitan areas like Boston and New York. NAEH argues that these figures are a reflection of family breakdown in addition to the factors that lead to adult homelessness such as a lack of affordable housing and substance abuse. NAEH also asserts that the figures reflect the problems with foster care and juvenile correction systems that lack adequate support systems and create barriers to work and housing.
Some of the claims made by NAEH were corroborated by my volunteer experience at Bridge. The government systems that many homeless young men and women deal with do not always provide the support that they need, which creates a greater risk of being over dependent on shelters, soup kitchens and emergency services.
Possible Strategies to Address the Problem
I think that to solve this challenge the government needs to create comprehensive solutions that address the different aspects of homelessness more intentionally. Increasing services such
as youth and family counseling, educational programs, and affordable housing for struggling families could possibly go a long way in reducing the number of youth who end up homeless as a result of unfavorable family circumstances.
Another possible solution could be to support the work of nonprofits that want to address the problem of youth homelessness. Bridge Over Troubled Waters and Homeless Empowerment Project are two examples of such organizations working to empower the homeless community. HEP’s work goes so far as to educate the rest of society while providing homeless men and women with employment opportunities and helpful resources. Organizations such as Youth Build USA, YMCA, YWCA and 4H Council help to empower young people to take control of their futures as well. And they need the government’s support to remain effective.
Yet another solution would be to streamline the processes that homeless youth have to go through in order to access services that already exist. I have witnessed the difficulties that young men and women have to overcome in order to access needed services, and the additional barriers created by obscure forms and requirements. Improving these processes will be effective in ensuring that these young men and women don’t fall through the cracks into larger problems such as addiction and destitution.
Lastly, we all need to enable our local communities to address the problem. We can take advantage of social networking platforms like Facebook, Ning and Twitter and social action sites like Idealist, Care2, and Serve.gov to connect with other people who want to make a difference around issues such as housing, hunger prevention, and local farming. Freecycle.org affiliates can be used to source secondhand furniture and clothing.
We Can All Make a Difference
If you are reading this article, you have already taken the first step down the path to addressing youth and adult homelessness. I think we all can get more people off the sidelines to do what they can, from sharing their time and resources to demanding that the government do more to address the problem of homelessness.
To learn more about Bridge Over Troubled Waters, please visit . For more information about youth and adult homelessness please visit .
Ukeme Esiet is a 2009 graduate of Assumption College, Worcester, MA. He recently completed an internship at Second Nature, Inc and plans to pursue a career in sustainable development. He also tweets about sustainability and social change at twitter.com/esietukeme.