Sox and empathy: The art of reaching out to homeless youth
by Mary Bruno
Amanda and Cassie plotting their route. Credit: Allyce Andrew
At 2:15 every weekday afternoon, Cassie Frickelton and Amanda Bevington pack up a green Dodge minivan and head out into King County’s sprawling eastside, in search of homeless youth. The two partners have been doing street outreach work for the Friends of Youth Shelter in Redmond for the last two years.
In a typical week, they’ll hit 17 different eastside locales, from Bellevue, Kirkland and Duvall all the way up to Snoqualmie and North Bend. They clock 70-90 miles on an average day, and they stick to a strict schedule so kids in need know when and where to find them. Bellevue/Factoria on Mondays. Renton on Tuesdays. Wednesdays is North Bend, Fall City, Issaquah, Sammamish and Snoqualmie, etc. "Being consistent” is important, says Amanda. “Being where you’re supposed to be” is a way of “letting them know you’re there for them.”
Amanda and Cassie are thorough and strategic in their approach to outreach, cagey even. They never assume someone is homeless, since many homeless kids try hard to fit in — to pass, if you will. Exactly where they park the van at each scheduled stop “depends on the season,” explains Cassie. If it’s raining and it’s Renton, for example, they’ll be at the skate park, which has covered areas where kids congregate to stay dry.
Before each day's run, they stock the van with tents, tarps, sleeping bags and other camping gear. “Pretty much anything anybody would be need if they’re sleeping outside,” says Cassie. They bring along food bags with non-perishables like granola bars, mixed nuts, dried fruit and Cup ‘o Noodle soups; and hygiene bags with shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, hand warmers and sanitizers, feminine products, sox, underwear. The food and hygiene bags are usually donated by local churches and Rotary Clubs, the Girl Scouts or corporations such as Bank of America. Sox and noodles are the most popular items.
Cassi and Amanda also carry fliers – lots of fliers – with information about the services that Friends of Youth offers, like counseling and case management and help finding housing and jobs. Flier placement is a carefully considered enterprise. Hot spots include libraries, transit centers, park and rides, malls, public restrooms, the community bulletin boards inside grocery stores, any place where kids can recharge their cell phones, and also pay phones. Yes, there are still pay phones on the eastside and Cassie and Amanda can tell you the location of each and every one. To protect homeless youth from getting rousted by local police, they are careful not to "out" homeless hideouts by papering them with fliers.
Street outreach isn’t cheap. Friends of Youth spends $150,000 to $200,000 for a staff of six that includes Cassie and Amanda and case managers. Staffing and gas are the biggest costs for the program. But outreach appears to be worth the money. Like other agencies that serve homeless youth, FOY is still perfecting ways to measure the effectiveness of its street outreach. But anecdotal evidence, based on the screening FOY conducts when people call in for help — “How did you hear about us?” — suggests that a signiificant number of the homeless kids it serves come to the shelter through the efforts of outreachers like Amanda and Cassie.
Cassi pastes a flier in an electrical box at an Eastside skate park. Credit: Allyce Andrew
Terry Pottmeyer, FOY executive director, remembers one young man telling of how he made his way to the shelter after finding a Friends of Youth flier taped to his tent, out in the woods. Amanda and Cassie are intrepid that way.
“Being patient and not judging,” says Amanda, when asked what she’s learned from her time as a street outreach worker.
“Be genuine,” adds Cassie. That entails listening, and treating homeless kids as equals remembering details like their names and their stories. Mostly, says Cassie, being genuine means "you have to actually care."
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