Pop-Up “Care Villages” Combine Services with Dignity and Engagement for Homeless Youth

A young woman uses a phone app to locate a pop-up care village.

Pop-up, one-stop shops for homeless young people provide access to multiple needed services in one place, and in a youth-friendly environment. New approaches to one-stop shops combine services with initiatives that promote dignity, peer empowerment, and engagement.

Lava Mae began by turning decommissioned municipal buses into hotel-quality mobile shower stalls for homeless people throughout San Francisco, and has expanded to Los Angeles and San Jose, CA. This summer, they partnered with the San Francisco Public Library, where many homeless people frequent, to create monthly Pop-Up “Care Villages” modeled after the Project Homeless Connect one-stop shops.  These events provide showers as well as: haircuts, clothing, mobile medical and dental clinics, reading glasses, DMV ID vouchers, employment opportunities, workforce development, mental health services and referrals, and gift cards.  Created by the local fundraising platform, HandUp, the gift cards require engagement with drop-in centers to be activated.

Lava Mae staff saw the need to have such events more frequently than once a month, and now host a weekly version in addition to the monthly Care Villages on a smaller scale.

 “A Positive Reflection”

Pop-Up “Care Villages” distinguish themselves from other one-stop shops by a philosophy called “radical hospitality.”

“Radical hospitality is the belief that people everywhere rise to level of care and treatment that they are provided. We are creating a positive reflection through the spaces we create on the streets that raise people’s level of dignity and hope — and people’s level of hope is critical to their self-efficacy,” said Leah Filler, impact and new programs director at Lava Mae.

Data gathered from 250 surveys of previous Lava Mae “Care Village” attendees show that those who spent the most amount of time mingling at the event, listening to the live music and connecting with staff and volunteers were more likely to report a strong sense of hope and resilience. 

“This confirms what we are talking about—it’s not just providing healthcare, food, and other services, but how those services are provided makes all the difference in an individual’s ability to receive and take on the opportunities available to them,” said Filler.

Helping Others Helps Homeless Youth

Spending even a few nights on the streets can be traumatizing, and can lead to mental health concerns for homeless youth. For many homeless young people, the act of getting a job with multiple responsibilities can be overwhelming, especially if a person has a mental illness. Lava Mae uses Pop-Up “Care Villages” to create one-time or shorter-term volunteer opportunities, such as running the showers or clinics, which can serve as a stepping stone to meaningful workforce development for youth.

“Giving manageable tasks to youth creates a sense of responsibility, and giving folks opportunities to help others creates a powerful feedback loop for everyone involved,” Filler said, speaking of the peer empowerment model.

A Focus on Engagement

From their survey, Lava Mae learned that one of the main attractions drawing homeless people to the Pop-Up “Care Villages” was the HandUp gift cards.

HandUp is a crowdfunding platform for nonprofit campaigns as well as homeless individuals that started in San Francisco and is now in 25 cities across the country. It is used to raise money for homeless youth’s specific needs, such as a security deposit for an apartment or books for school.  The gift cards are a physical manifestation of these fundraising activities, and also serve as an engagement tool. Worth $25 each, the cards contain instructions on what they can be used for, and a map on how to get to the drop-in or service centers where they can be activated. In order to activate the value, homeless individuals must speak to a case manager.  

 “It’s not just helping with basic needs. They can use it toward just getting some food, paying a cell phone bill, and other immediate needs, but it also encourages engagement with a case manager. When they bring in a card it turns into longer ongoing conversation,” said Sammie Rayner, co-founder and chief operating officer at HandUp. If a card is not used before it expires, HandUp transfers the value into a general pool of funds distributed evenly across the platform, including to the individual online fundraising profiles.

Between the regular frequency and hospitable ambience of the Pop-Up “Care Villages,” peer empowerment, and engagement-focused philosophies, Lava Mae and its partners are setting a valuable model of the one-stop shop approach to ending and addressing homelessness.

“Every relationship we create is an opportunity to change that person’s story on who people in authority are, who people who provide services are, and how these relationships can be positive and supportive,” Filler said.

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