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Staff with Mentor Roles Enhance Housing Programs for Transition Age Youth

A mentor guides her mentee in an art project.

In March 2012, the Peacock Commons opened its doors, serving youth aged 18-25 who were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in Santa Clara, California. The permanent supportive housing program was recently ranked as a top provider in the county by the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and part of the program’s success was due to its six on-site mentors.

The mentors provide one-on-one and group services to the community’s tenants for 15 hours per month in exchange for discounted rent. According to Kristin Caldarelli, the site services supervisor, the mentors run arts and crafts nights and help residents problem-solve roommate challenges. They also recently helped a young person successfully gain admission to community college. These part-time volunteers have prior youth work experience and work at least 20 hours per week at youth-serving agencies where they earn an income that meets the affordable housing criteria.

[Discover ways to support at-risk and homeless youth in finding and keeping housing.]

In Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada, 360°kids, another youth-serving agency, also provides mentoring services for the youth enrolled in their Supportive Transitional Apartments for Youth (S.T.A.Y.) program. The full-time, off-site transitional support worker performs mentoring responsibilities as part of their oversight of 11 young people, aged 16-26, who live in three apartments.

The mentoring role of a transitional support worker distinguishes them from traditional case workers, says Bonnie Harkness, the director of operations for 360°kids. By interacting with residents through activities like cooking, going for walks, and informal counseling, transitional support workers help youth prepare for an independent life.

Considering Whether a Mentor Position is the Right Fit

When considering mentor positions, evaluate whether an organization is meeting all of its goals, and consider whether a mentor could help address any shortfalls, Caldarelli said. For example, an on-site mentor can help residents learn housekeeping skills and enforce the guest policy.

An organization can also capitalize on a mentor position within the agency to create a unique staff role. Even though mentors supervise residents, Caldarelli noted that young people don’t perceive them as authority figures like their therapists and case workers. “[It’s good to have] somebody in their life that's there to…hold them accountable but is also somebody that they can trust…You know, somebody that's there to counsel them. And kind of be like a big brother-, big sister-type figure,” Caldarelli added.

[Learn how to help homeless college students find housing during academic breaks.]

Coaching is another important aspect of the mentor role that empowers youth to gain the skills they need for independent living, Harkness says. Teaching young people how to make their own referral appointments, ask providers questions, and “work the system,” are all ways mentors can contribute to residents’ emerging independence.

On-Site Versus Off-Site

In Canada, 360°kids initially tried to maintain an on-site mentor that lived in one of S.T.A.Y.’s apartments, but it was difficult to recruit qualified staff and most candidates were reluctant to live with at-risk youth. After a year the position was changed to a 25 hours per week off-site mentor, Harkness said. Five years later it became a full time position and the title changed from “mentor” to “transitional support worker.”

Once the position moved off-site, matching mentors’ work schedules to young people’s availability became critical to maximize mentor-youth interaction, Harkness said. The S.T.A.Y. transitional support worker mentors youth Monday through Friday, 12pm to 8pm, and one weekend day twice a month, to interact with youth when they are most likely to be at home.

Leadership staff at the Bill Wilson Center, the youth agency that manages Peacock Commons, took a different approach. According to Sparky Harlan, chief executive officer, the commons utilized on-site mentors from the beginning to enhance services and provide affordable housing to regionally-based youth workers.

“Silicon Valley has the highest housing cost in the country. I can't operate my programs if my staff can't live here,” Harlan remarked. “We need to be able to provide affordable housing for this population [and] for a workforce, because I need them to be here.”

[Check out the HUD Exchange’s guidance on providing LGBT youth and adults equal access to housing and shelter.]

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