Q&A: How Homeless Youth Programs Can Benefit from Drug-Free Communities Funding

Laurie Mazerbo

Last year, we published an interview with Laurie Mazerbo of Our Family Services, a Runaway and Homeless Youth Program grantee that also receives federal funds to prevent youth substance use. Now that the White House is seeking new applicants for its Drug-Free Communities Support Program, we’re re-posting that conversation, along with information about the FY 2016 request for applications.

In January, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released the FY 2016 request for applications (PDF, 1.3MB) for its ground-breaking Drug-Free Communities Support Program. For nearly 20 years, ONDCP has provided crucial funding to community-based coalitions that unite to prevent and reduce youth substance use. Coalitions can receive up to $125,000 a year for five years to work together toward a common goal of building a safe, healthy, and drug-free community. To apply for a Drug-Free Communities Support Program grant, the following guidance needs to be followed:

  • Grants awarded through the program are intended to support established community-based youth substance use prevention coalitions capable of effecting community-level change.
  • Community-based coalitions must be in existence for at least six months.
  • Applicants must meet all of the program’s statutory eligibility requirements. See the full list of statutory eligibility requirements (PDF, 1.3MB) on pages 12-16 of the request for applications.
  • Successful applicants must be able to provide a dollar-for-dollar match. 

The Family and Youth Services Bureau knows that runaway and homeless youth agencies play an important role shaping local strategies to reduce youth substance use, yet only a handful of runaway and homeless youth agencies, like Our Family Services in Tuscon, Arizona, receive these much-needed Drug-Free Communities funds. We talked to Laurie Mazerbo, program director at the agency’s New Beginnings housing and shelter division, about why runaway and homeless youth programs should take a close look at the recent request for applications before the March 18 deadline.

NCFY: Why should runaway and homeless youth agencies consider applying for the Drug-Free Communities Support Program grant?

Mazerbo: The piece that’s missing for agencies like ours is the chicken and egg conversation. We know that a lot of our runaway and homeless youth use substances, but it’s hard to know when and why they started. Is it because they’ve grown up with [substance abuse] in their family and seen it, or do they use substances because that’s what led them to become homeless or get on the street? Maybe being homeless became too much so they turned to substances.

If agencies can do a better job answering these questions with the Drug-Free Communities grant, perhaps we can get enough education out there so kids don’t use substances if they do become homeless. Or if we prevent kids from using drugs at an earlier age, it may be a protective factor for them not becoming homeless at all.

NCFY: The philosophy behind the Drug-Free Communities Program is that local drug problems require local solutions. How does that resonate with your experience serving runaway and homeless youth at Our Family Services?

Mazerbo: We’ve been a part of some research projects over the years where they tell you what you have to implement, and they don’t want you changing things because it’s best practice or research-based. Then you try it in your community and it doesn’t match the five cities where they ran those tests.

There are nuances to each city and community. There are demographics that look different. For instance, we have a higher Mexican American and Native American population in Tucson than in most areas.

We’re an hour away from the Mexican border so that makes things different for us. There’s a high influx of drug activities that came up through the border. Then you have to add in the weather. For six months out of the year, it’s 100 degrees or hotter, so our street outreach looks different. Our street outreach workers go out in the desert so it doesn’t look the same as in other communities.

NCFY: Drug-Free Communities provides funding to community-based coalitions that organize to prevent youth substance use, rather than a single agency. How might interested runaway and homeless youth agencies benefit from joining a collaboration?

Mazerbo: At Our Family Services, we don’t pretend to be the expert on everything. We try to bring in partners to help us with the pieces we’re not as strong at, and it’s really nice not to have to figure out how to do everything in-house.

We have 20 girls living in our maternity group home. Rather than try to provide all of the life skills ourselves, we bring in a lot of folks from the community to teach about health. We recruit people from the university medical center; we use nurse-family partnerships.

With limited resources, it’s best for agencies to maximize the community’s expertise and invite resources to the table so you don’t have to figure out how to do everything and can really hone in on the thing that you do the best. We’ve all sustained cuts and things that have been challenging over the last few years with the economy. I think the value of collaboration applies across the board.

More From NCFY

Read more about ways communities are collaborating to improve services for young people.  We've also looked at three studies exploring what can be done to reduce substance use among homeless youth.

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