Bright Idea: Getting Rural Homeless Youth off the Couch and Into Their Own Beds
The child of drug addicts, Celina spent three years being shuffled between other people’s houses in southern Colorado, crashing on floors and sofas and not knowing where she’d be sleeping the next night. Through all that, she never thought of herself as homeless.
Today, at 17, she lives a stable life with her grandparents and serves on the San Luis Valley Mental Health Center’s Homeless and Runaway Youth Prevention Leadership Group. Only recently, she learned that her family’s past situation meets a federal definition of homelessness.
“If I had known I was homeless and that resources existed, I would have gotten help earlier and wouldn’t have had to spend as much time being homeless,” she says.
Like Celina, most homeless youth in rural Colorado never live on the street. According to the Colorado Rural Homeless Youth Profile, a recent survey of youth in the state, seventy-five percent of rural homeless youth “couch surf,” living with friends or relatives and frequently moving from place to place. Like Celina, most wouldn’t know they were homeless unless someone told them. As a result, they often don’t seek help from social service agencies.
The antidote, say members of Colorado’s State Systems for Rural Homeless Youth project, funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau, is to raise awareness among youth and the general public. To that end, community members in Moffat County last year came up with a campaign that is spreading to other corners of Colorado. Its slogan, “A couch is not a home,” aims to tackle the stigma rural youth may face if they are called homeless.
“It’s hard to be considered homeless in an area that prides itself on being self-sufficient,” says Bob Coulson, an adolescent services administrator at the Colorado Department of Human Services. By showing what rural homelessness looks like, the campaign “takes the sting out of the stigma,” he says.
Moffat resident Matt Beckett and Amanda Cleveland, a specialist with the State Systems for Rural Homeless Youth project, created artwork based on conversations with youth and youth workers. Their input enabled the artists to depict the reality of sleeping on someone else’s couch: hat, jeans, sneakers and all.
“Everyone seems to relate to this,” Coulson says. “Everyone has spent a night or two on a couch somewhere and they certainly wouldn’t want to call that a home.”
Celina and other youth across the state have put up posters at coffee shops and libraries. The campaign image also appears on bags and t-shirts that are distributed to youth and adults who can explain the campaign and refer youth to services. “I use the bag as my backpack, and when people ask about it I tell them what it means,” Celina says.
“Right now we’re raising awareness,” Coulson says. The next step will focus on connecting youth to services. The group is creating colored wristbands advertising the National Runaway Switchboard's 24-hour hotline (1-800-RUNAWAY) and the local social services helpline 211. Because most rural counties don’t have shelters, the state aims to build a host-home program in which outreach workers would engage youth and their extended family and social networks to identify a stable home.
Ultimately, Coulson says, the goal is to provide services where young people live and reduce the chances that they’ll migrate to cities where they might be victimized. “We need to help communities get organized to work with their own kids because they want their kids to stay, but they don’t realize they’re homeless.”
For more information about the campaign or to order materials, please contact Amanda Cleveland at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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