“I’ve never felt so privileged as when I get to go up and just listen to stories of people living on the street, find out who they are, and get to know them,” street outreach worker Jasmine Pettet says.
Pettet works for the street outreach program at Janus Youth Programs, a youth-serving agency in Portland, Oregon. She and a partner search for runaway and homeless youth who need a hand. They get to know some of the hardest-to-reach young people and build relationships with them. They offer them what they need to survive and positive choices and opportunities. The goal is to help these young people leave the streets for good.
Since 1996, the HHS/Administration for Children and Families/Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) has provided funding for street outreach programs like the one at Janus. These programs serve and protect runaway and homeless youth and youth on the streets who have been, or are at risk of being, sexually abused and exploited.
Harry Wilson, Associate Commissioner of FYSB, describes street outreach as the only way some youth can be connected. “Street outreach programs help connect young people to the services and supports they need,” he says. “For a lot of youth, it’s a gateway to other services and opportunities that can help put them on a path toward healthy, independent lives.”
FYSB’s street outreach programs conduct outreach to build trust and relationships between program staff and street youth. They offer a range of education, intervention, and prevention services to provide positive alternatives for youth, ensure their safety, and maximize their ability to take advantage of available opportunities. FYSB recognizes that the need is great.
Every day, across the country, more than 1.3 million young people run from or are asked to leave homes characterized by abuse, neglect, or parental drug or alcohol abuse. Every night, these young people live on the streets or in unstable living situations, such as their friends’ homes or overcrowded apartments. Once on the streets and away from adult supervision, many youth risk being sexually exploited or abused by adults for pleasure or profit.
But to a street outreach worker trying to help a young person who is hungry, cold, lonely, afraid, abused, or sick, there is only one. One youth in need of housing, food, clothing, or health care. One youth who needs assistance applying for food stamps, finding mental health or substance abuse counseling, getting an education, locating work, and accessing other services. One youth with many needs.
One-to-one interaction between staff and youth is what makes street outreach efforts successful, outreach workers say. A street outreach worker’s ability to be in the moment, focus on the individual, and meet young people “where they’re at” is critical.
True, outreach workers encounter many young people during the course of a night, but each one, they say, requires individual attention, support, and guidance. This may mean providing street-based education, on-the-spot counseling and referrals for other services, crisis intervention, emergency shelter, or survival aid.
But meeting youth “where they’re at” means more than meeting them “on their turf.” Outreach workers say it means helping youth in their own time, when they’re ready.
“I want to help as many kids as I can, but I want to make sure that I don’t work harder than they do,” says Nicole Bush, a street outreach worker at Urban Peak in Denver, Colorado. “They have to put forth an effort too.”
Street outreach workers empower youth to make their own choices, and when youth are ready, staff help them explore the gap between where they are and where they want to be. Then staff link youth to resources that can bridge that gap. If a young person is not ready to explore those options, street outreach workers simply remain available to them until they are.
Most youth appreciate knowing that there are people willing to help. “Knowing that there is somebody out there just wanting to hear about your day,” Pettet says, “whether it’s a kid living on the street or anyone else, it can really have a profound impact on someone’s life.”