Ask NCFY: Getting Staff Used to the ‘Low-Barrier’ Approach at a Youth Shelter

Photograph of diverse teens

Q: I run a shelter for homeless teens. I’m thinking about moving to a “low-barrier” approach to working with youth, meaning that we won’t turn young people away because they’ve been drinking or using drugs. How can I get staff to buy into this change?

A: Ingrained in every good youth worker is the idea of “meeting young people where they’re at.” So start by telling your staff that your new approach will enable them to do just that.

Staff used to working in places with a lot of rules and restrictions might still be apprehensive about serving youth who haven't committed themselves to sobriety. In that case, you might also share the insights of Chris Bicknell, teen services coordinator at Preble Street, a Portland, ME, nonprofit that serves the homeless using a low-barrier philosophy.

Bicknell cites research showing that when individuals’ basic needs are being met, they are more likely to want to get sober and remain that way. And he says of youth in his program, “When youth are able to identify an issue on their own”—rather than being told what to do by staff—“they typically get the help they need and stay with the program or service.”

Bicknell says that Preble Street employees buy into the low-barrier approach because supervisors have high expectations and model the behavior they are looking for in their staff. New personnel get a lot of training and supervision on how to guide youth without enabling their addictions. A staff member has to be observed doing a task at least twice before being considered “trained.”

Bicknell adds that when making new hires, bring on staff that are willing to work with extremely challenging young people.

Finally, assure your staff members that you care about safety. At Preble Street, rules come into play when a young person compromises his or her own safety or that of staff or other youth. But even then, staff don’t keep the young person from getting services. They simply keep the youth away from public spaces at the teen center for a period of time.

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