Bright Idea: Finding Creative Ways to Engage Homeless Youth

Photograph of smiling young people.

At the Orion Center in Seattle, young people learn yoga, rock climbing and knitting. They make greeting cards and mosaics, and play guitar or drums during jam sessions with professional musicians.

But Director Ruth Blaw is quick to emphasize, “We’re not a rec center.”

Run by the nonprofit YouthCare, Orion is a drop-in center where homeless youth get food, clothing, supplies and referrals to other services. That’s what brings them in the door. But what gets many youth to stay and open up, Blaw believes, are the unique activities, classes and workshops Orion offers. That is, finding creative ways to engage homeless youth enables staff to help youth take the next step toward building their futures.

What’s Next?

Blaw says, “With every youth, we always have one question in mind: ‘What's next?’”

When homeless young people create art or make music or take on physical challenges, they’re opening up and taking a little bit of a risk, Blaw says. And all the while, staff are giving them guidance and encouragement. “It helps create trust in a group that’s typically short on trust,” she says.

For young people who are ready to move forward, Orion offers GED prep, employment training, and workshops on securing and maintaining housing.

Staff let young people know about these educational opportunities in between jam sessions or poetry workshops. They’re systematic about it, keeping careful logs of interactions with each young person, what they talked about, and who to follow up with about what.

Getting Creative

Blaw has some tips on how to get creative about engaging homeless youth:

  • Offer activities that would appeal to a broad range of youth. For example, Orion tries to balance activities that are crafty, outdoorsy, calming and lively. They also offer skill-building activities, like cooking.
  • Ask youth for suggestions. Orion staff ask for input at weekly community meetings, and peer outreach workers survey youth informally during drop-in hours. The center has also had a suggestion box. Blaw says, “Some youth always speak up and some never do, so it’s important to try and solicit feedback in various ways.”
  • To find volunteers to lead activities, ask staff to think about roommates, family members, and others they know who have special talents. Brainstorm businesses in your neighborhood that might donate space or materials. And think about approaching groups who already donate regularly. For example, if there’s a church that brings coats every month, ask them to consider an art-supply drive.
  • Activities should be flexible and undemanding. “We’re not asking people to make a plan for their life,” Blaw says. “It’s good when young people can get some positive attention from adults and they have something they can come to regularly and hopefully look forward to.”
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