Addressing the Needs of Youth of Color Experiencing Homelessness – Part 2: Busting Myths

Published: April 9, 2018

The Youth of Color Needs Assessment , a research project of the Northwest Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of Abuse, examines the overrepresentation of youth of color among homeless and unstably housed young people in King County. The report highlights barriers and opportunities for addressing homelessness among youth of color, and provides recommendations for preventing the disproportionality that exists.

Schoolhouse Washington posed questions to the report’s lead researchers and authors, Carrie Lippy and Sydney Pk, to learn more about the experiences, strengths and needs of the youth – and to generate ideas for serving them better.

This is the second installment in a two-part series:

Q: Your report busts several myths about youth of color experiencing homelessness, including the notion that those living in youth homeless shelters are estranged from their families. What did the youth tell you about their connections with family?

We heard a much more complex and nuanced narrative about the relationships that youth of color who are homeless have with their families. One consistent thing we heard was that participants’ families were “going through it” as well. That is, their families were experiencing poverty, homelessness, or were destabilized by things like the criminal justice system, prisons and Child Protective Services.

“Often, young people wanted to turn to their families for support but their families were unable to provide the assistance they needed.”

Even when young people described situations that might fit more into a traditional definition of family estrangement, the surrounding context points to a complex intersection of racial and class dynamics.

For example, many youth described how a fight with their family prompted them to leave and live on their own, which ultimately led to their experiences of homelessness. However, in talking more about the conflict, participants often described challenging, overcrowded living environments that understandably might lead to conflict. Or youth described engaging in common adolescent behavior (such as being tardy to school) that had significant consequences for their family (such as fines for the truancy) that led to the conflict and subsequent estrangement.

Estrangement from families often seemed to reflect the challenging conditions in which many families lived and the underlying structural racism that shape those conditions. With that said, it is still important to note that some youth of color we spoke with were estranged from their families for reasons related to violence or abuse. When working with all young people, it’s important for them to self-determine their level of engagement and contact with their family. Policies that require reunification can pose significant risks for young people whose safety and wellbeing is dependent on separation from their family.

Q: What are some other assumptions people make about youth of color experiencing homelessness that need to reevaluated, based on your findings?

Before even starting the project, one of the things we heard repeatedly throughout the county was that youth of color do not identify as “homeless” and thus they do not seek “homeless” services. We asked youth of color directly about this and found that while this was true for some young people, it was not true for most of those we talked with. Instead, what they shared was that their hesitancy to use homeless services was often the result of their own negative experiences at the agency or the negative experiences of friends and family. This includes the negative experiences their family may have had with services when the youth was just a young child.

This assumption about homeless terminology feels important to challenge because it can inadvertently blame young people of color for not seeking available services. It suggests that the problem is young people’s knowledge and awareness of their situation, whereas the actual problem is the quality and competency of the services available to them.

Q: What are some specific steps school personnel can take to expand opportunities for youth to build positive relationships with caring adults?

Youth of color in our focus groups identified that they really want caring adults who look like them and reflect their experiences. Schools can consider hiring policies and strategies to collaborate with mentorship programs that support staff of color and staff from lower income backgrounds to connect with young people. Many youth of color reported that they felt they didn’t have time to try afterschool programs unless they were meeting a basic need.

“Prioritizing support for teachers and counselors who reflect the experiences of homeless youth of color is essential, as is increasing avenues for youth of color to get basic needs met so they are not compromising meaningful connections to survive.”

Investing in leadership among youth of color and encouraging their feedback also are essential to building a positive relationship. School personnel can get creative to find ways to pay youth of color for their expertise. For example, schools could coordinate peer education workshops or support networks for students experiencing homelessness.

Q: Relationships are important, but so are resources. What types of services do youth of color experiencing homelessness say they want but aren’t necessarily getting?

Most fundamentally, the young people who participated in the focus groups described needing ways to consistently get their basic needs met. They described how the strict hours and lottery systems used by many shelters made it difficult to know where they would be able to stay from day to day. Related to that, many young people who work non-traditional hours reported needing more safe places to sleep during the day when shelters are typically closed.

Other young people described appreciating and wanting more programming and supports that are not often considered traditional homeless services. These included arts and music programs, life skills training, Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Late Night Program , and jobs programs. Participants valued these types of supports for their emphasis on self-determination and skill building, and because the programs often were led by other people of color.

Q: Your report delves into experiences that the youth have in school, which unfortunately are mostly negative. Yet you also highlighted strategies that work well – in particular, at Interagency Academy in Seattle. Granted, the Academy is an alternative school that dedicates support to students experiencing homelessness. But what lessons can be taken from the Academy that school districts can integrate into their mainstream high schools and middle schools?

Some of the elements of Interagency Academy that resonated with the young people included the teachers and staff:

  • Regularly checking in with the youth.
  • Having the capacity and cultural competency to respond to the range of needs and situations the youth faced.
  • Reflecting the identities and experiences of the youth.
  • Using a relational – not transactional – approach with the youth.

Taken together, these elements led young people to see Interagency Academy as having a long-term investment in them and committed to their long-term success and wellbeing.

While many of these elements are within the purview of school districts, not all may be replicable or transferrable outside of the setting of Interagency Academies. School districts, though, may want to explore ways to partner with and support the important work happening at Interagency Academy.

Q: Can you summarize the main points that you want school district personnel to take away from your research?

Homeless and unstably housed youth of color are experts on their own experiences. They have incredible strengths and resilience that caring adults can recognize and support. Overwhelmingly, too, youth of color who participated in our focus groups were hungry for opportunities to share their knowledge in an environment where their input was being heard and taken seriously. School districts would have so much to gain by increasing avenues for youth at the margins to inform decisions about their education and their lives.

Read the full Youth of Color Needs Assessment here.

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