NCFY Reports

Street Outreach Basics

Who is a street youth?

A street youth is an unaccompanied young person who has no permanent place to stay and does not live with a parent or guardian. Street youth might sleep “on the street”—in a park, on the stoop of a store, under a bridge, in a car—or they might crash on a friend’s couch.

In more rural areas, street outreach workers might find youth living together in a cramped trailer or garage, or sleeping alone in an abandoned shed or barn.

Ryan Barrieau, street outreach supervisor at Child and Family Services, a FYSB grantee in Manchester, New Hampshire, says his outreach teams target young people who live on the river banks near the downtown area as well as youth who live 10 to a studio apartment. “It’s the same population and the same needs,” he says.

How do outreach workers know a youth is homeless?

“Most of them will tell you,” says Ben Solheim, outreach supervisor at Orion Center, a program of FYSB grantee YouthCare in Seattle, Washington. “You just ask.”

As easy as that sounds, Mary Jo Meuleners, a community health specialist and former street outreach worker in Minneapolis, Minnesota, emphasizes the importance of questioning youth sensitively. “I do it by saying what I do, not, ‘Are you homeless?’” she says.

Outreach workers say they take care not to pigeonhole young people based on appearances. They don’t assume a young person on the street is homeless, nor do they speak only to homeless youth. Says Barrieau, “When we talk about street youth, they don’t fit a particular stereotype. There are hundreds of street youth. They could look like any other kid. If we see kids on the street, we talk to just about every kid we encounter.”

Often, outreach teams hear about street youth from other street youth. “It’s usually the kids themselves who tell us, ‘This is so-and-so. He’s new,’” Solheim says.

Meuleners looks for youth carrying big overnight bags or wearing tattered shoes. But, she cautions, these aren’t definitive indicators of homelessness. The shoes could be a sign of poverty, rather than homelessness, she says. “If they have a backpack and a sleeping bag, they could be homeless, or they could be camping,” she adds.

Meuleners also tries to observe youths’ demeanor: do they seem comfortable or anxious being on the street? If a young person is “looking all alone and nervous,” she says, she’ll make sure to approach that youth.

Where do outreach workers find homeless youth?

Outreach workers in a particular city or area know the best places to find young people on the streets. They often find youth in social spaces, such as coffee shops or 24- hour restaurants, in the parts of town where services for homeless people cluster, at places that serve free meals, or in public parks and basketball courts.

The Night Ministry, a faith-based grantee serving homeless youth and adults in Chicago, reaches out to young people as they leave school for the day, through a program called PASS, or Preventive Afterschool Support Services. PASS focuses on the Chicago high schools with the highest enrollment of homeless students.

“Afterschool snacks attract a lot of kids,” says Heather Bradley, the Night Ministry’s youth outreach coordinator. “Then we tell them about the survival supplies and services we offer.”

In many areas, homeless youth have different hangouts depending on the time of year. In the summer, Meuleners says, homeless youth in Minneapolis camp by the river or sleep beneath underpasses or in wooded areas of the city. In winter, many youth leave town for warmer places, and most of those who stay move off the streets.

“Street traffic and street life slows down in winter,” Meuleners says, explaining that in colder months, Minneapolis outreach staff spend more time working at drop-in centers and shelters, though they still do street outreach, except on the most frigid days.

Who can help outreach workers find homeless youth?

Barrieau says social service providers and other homeless shelters sometimes inform his agency about a young person on the street. He’s also gotten calls from neighborhood people, such as shop owners who find young people sleeping in their thresholds.

But more often that not, he says, people in the community know too little about youth homelessness. “In Manchester, people are oblivious to the scope of the problem,” he says. “They might not realize the kid on their doorstep is homeless.”

On the contrary, Vicki Lawton, program coordinator of the street outreach program at Panhandle Community Services in rural Gering, Nebraska, says, “Things that might be ignored in a big city aren’t in a small town.”

Lawton often gets calls from community members who report seeing a young person hanging around somewhere for several days in the cold. She also gets calls from school officials.

To increase awareness, Barrieau sometimes takes community leaders or agency donors on a street outreach shift. “We try to make sure that people outside of social services are informed about the epidemic,” he says.

Outreach workers say that because street youth often view police with suspicion, outreach teams must work hard to appear impartial if they collaborate with police to identify homeless youth. Despite that caveat, Barrieau sees greater opportunity for working with law enforcement. “We’re attempting to partner with police to offer services to kids they pick up,” he says.

Bradley’s agency regularly makes presentations about youth homelessness to congregations, business people, coaches, teachers, guidance counselors, health professionals, mental health counselors, and staff of afterschool programs, YMCAs, and Boys and Girls Clubs. The sessions teach adults how to be receptive and nonjudgmental so a homeless young person might be more likely to confide in them.

And with the aim of enlisting young people themselves in the fight against youth homelessness, Bradley and her staff speak to high school students about the issue. “It’s going to make it more likely that if they encounter a friend that’s at risk, they’ll know where to send them and how to help them,” she says.

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