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3 novel programs help parents bring street youth back home

Sixteen-year-old Sarah ran away from home repeatedly. Her parents would call the police and Children's Administration, to no avail. Finally they called Friends of Youth, and when Sarah turned up she was admitted to one of FOY's youth shelters.

Sarah told the on-site therapist that she thought her parents were overly controlling and didn't really love her; they’d even blamed her for a sexual assault she suffered while on the run. But with counseling Sarah’s family got better at communicating with each other, rebuilt trust and made a plan for reuniting. Sarah went back home, resumed high school and got a part-time job. According to FOY's CEO Terry Pottmeyer, she hasn’t run away for two months.

No question Sarah was a kid at risk. Pimps and pushers start grooming young runaways like her soon after they wander into places like Westlake Center: Hey, you hungry? Need a place to sleep? Add muggers and other thugs to the welcoming committee, and it’s clear that minors should never wind up on the streets, or should be returned home fast when they do, if home is safe.

Even one assault is traumatic, and kids who are repeatedly brutalized come to think they don’t deserve better. It's one reason street youth can grow up to be homeless adults, says Sarah Christiansen, director of residential and outreach services at Auburn Youth Resources. By the age of 23 or so, she says, most chronically homeless youngsters have stopped believing in themselves enough to seek a way out.

Helping kids who end up on the streets is critical. More important is keeping kids from being kicked out or running away in the first place.

Homeless youth service providers in King County now offer prevention programs that help families stay together or reunite with their offspring. It’s a change in provider philosophy, according to Melinda Giovengo (above), executive director of YouthCare. For half a century parents in crisis were often considered their estranged kid’s biggest problem. Today they’re treated as potentially part of the solution. It's a more humane view, for when a child runs or is driven away, “the whole family suffers,” says Giovengo. It’s also practical: “Whatever modicum of relief we can bring to [parents] helps our youth.”

Safety comes first, of course. Youth social workers dealing with families make careful judgments about every home situation. Any question about a youngster’s safety sparks a call to DSHS Child Protection Services or immediate placement at an emergency shelter. Short of that, the focus is on resolving family conflicts and creating opportunities for families to grow healthier. Here are three of the most innovative efforts to keep families healthy and together.

1. Safe Place

After an argument with his mother a teenage boy ran away, determined to find the father he hadn’t seen in years. He was “using a 13-year-old’s judgment,” says YouthCare prevention program manager Morgan Silverman. The young man walked from Seattle to Renton and arrived late that night at a distant relative’s door. There he was told to get on a bus and ask the driver for Safe Place. “We met him at a Renton bus terminal and took him to an emergency shelter for minors," Silverman says. "He was reunited with his mother in the morning.”

Like the boy’s relatives, you have surely seen the Safe Place signs. They're prominently displayed on every Metro bus and in shop windows throughout King County. Safe Place is a 24/7 response system used across the nation to protect homeless kids age 12-17, either by reuniting youngsters with their families or placing them in an under-18 shelter for the night.

Safe Place launched in King County in 2011. The program is run as a partnership among YouthCare, Friends of Youth and Auburn Youth Resources. By late 2013 the three partners had recruited 28 local businesses and nonprofits to open over 1,800 Safe Place sites throughout King County.

“Any business or church can apply to become a site where young people will see the yellow sign that says, ‘We’re here for you and ready to help,’” says YouthCare’s Giovengo. Kids can knock on the door and be connected by phone to one of the three agencies, or they can call the number on the sign. The Safe Place partner agency responding to the call will talk with the youngster, assess the situation and determine the safer, more appropriate option for the night — home or a shelter bed.

Through Safe Place “we visually, practically, and intentionally say, as a community, ‘We are not going to abandon our kids,’” says Giovengo. To get more businesses and citizens on board with this and other strategies to end youth homelessness, the public needs to overcome stereotypes about homeless youth and young adults. “What we see are kids who are basically scared," says Silverman. "Across the board. They hide it, and are very grateful for help.”

Parents are often grateful, too. “The worst parent in the world wants to do a good job,” continues Silverman. But families are contending with a lot: “school issues, bullies, not fitting in, dad's unemployed.” The partner agency responding to the youth's Safe Place call will contact the parents and bring them into the conversation about where the youngster should spend the night. (Washington law requires parental consent for a child to stay in a shelter.)

At Friends of Youth in Kirkland, a Safe Place call followed by a youngster's admission to the FOY shelter prompts the therapeutic response this agency was founded on: intensive work with young people and their families on reconciliation and reunion. “We meet with the youth first,” says Shawn Sivly, program manager of the Youth Haven shelter, and conduct a psychosocial interview. “Next day we call the parents and get their side. Then we invite everyone in for the first of three sessions with a trained therapeutic specialist at our facility.” Sessions are scheduled around the parents’ work hours, and transportation can be provided.

Family members are taught to engage with one another in constructive, affirming ways. They begin by talking about each other’s strengths, then move on to the issues that trigger disputes. The son or daughter may be running away, using marijuana, skipping school. Mom may be so involved in her job or social life that the youngster feels abandoned. Families dealing with domestic violence or serious mental illness are referred to additional specialists.

The second session is about everyday behaviors that ignite conflict. The counselor helps the family objectively sum up the pros and cons of each behavior, parsing an overwhelming emotional crisis into potentially manageable moments. Family members use acronyms such as GIVE (“Gentle. Interested. Validate each other. Easygoing with the kid.”) to guide their responses.

Youth may remain at the shelter for up to 21 days. While there they get coached in negotiating instead of demanding “my way or the highway.” Parents oppressed by bills, health problems, a divorce and their teenager's poor grades can begin to catch their breath. The family practices taking things one at a time and being mindful of their behavior and tone.

The final session outlines expectations for the youngster around returning home and produces a plan for ongoing reinforcement of positive family dynamics. “It’s amazing," says Pottmeyer, "how some tips from a skilled professional who wants everybody’s success can shift the situation.”

Many Safe Place calls south of Seattle come to the third partner, Auburn Youth Resources. AYR serves low-income families and young people in South King County, where the economic downturn has brought widespread poverty and services are perilously thin. Sometimes it’s a police officer on the phone, says AYR's Christiansen (at left), “or a mom will call saying, ‘I can’t take this kid anymore. I need a break.’” Kids admitted to AYR's under-18 shelter can stay up to 21 days, and both parents and teens can get counseling. As in the strategies outlined above, the emphasis is on improving relationships.

Safe Place was independently reviewed in 2013. The program served 74 youth in its first two years and is scaling up.

2. Project SAFE

In 2013 YouthCare launched Project SAFE in King County. The effort targets kids aged 12-17 who have run away or are at risk of running away. Cocoon House in Snohomish County designed and pioneered this ground-breaking program starting in 2001; in 2007 it was named a national best practice. The heart of Project SAFE is a subtly structured, 90-minute phone conversation between worried parents and a staff clinician.

“It’s not quite crisis intervention,” says Cassie Franklin, Cocoon House CEO. “It’s not quite therapy, either. It’s more accessible, more anonymous, more confidential, …less taboo.” And it’s convenient. “The parent can take a long lunch at work and go sit in their car to talk.”

Parents tell the therapist about the crisis with their child, venting frustrations. The counselor helps them to reflect on stresses within the family and distinguish between vexing youthful behaviors that may be perfectly normal and those that represent danger signals. Next steps may be a support group for the parents or a mental health evaluation for the child. Maybe a Cocoon House seminar series for youth and their parents called WayOUT. Maybe some parent education about teen brain development and how to talk with your kids about drugs, alcohol and sex. A half-hour follow-up call is scheduled for two weeks later.

“We’re one of the first organizations to look at preventing teen homelessness by looking at the family system,” says Franklin (at left). “It’s not about a bad teen or a bad parent. We give the parent the information and tools they need to manage and rebuild relationships at home.”

In 2013, Cocoon House held phone consultations with 285 parents. Of those, 85 participated in support groups and parenting classes. An additional 180 parents and their children attended WayOUT. About 80 percent of the kids deemed in danger of running away stayed home.

3. The Groundwork Project

Mental illness and drugs kept Jonathan on Seattle’s streets for many years. He was a familiar face to numerous service providers. At 23, about the age many chronically homeless young people lose hope, Jonathan started working on his recovery. He told his drug and alcohol counselor that his family had rejected him, but after he stayed clean-and-sober for a year, the Groundwork Project at University District Youth Center helped Jonathan include his parents in his support team.

With his Groundwork team's support, Jonathan moved into transitional housing, stayed sober and tended his mental health. The team also helped him realize a lifelong dream of teaching sailing. He’s now a licensed sailing instructor, employed in a field he’s passionate about. From his Groundwork team he learned how to advocate for himself, engage constructively with others and improve his credit score. Jonathan recently moved back home, where he’s saving money for his own apartment.

The story comes from Scott Schubert, a wraparound facilitator for the Catholic Community Services (CCS) Groundwork Project at University District Youth Center. A Groundwork program in Kent serves King County south of Seattle, and Friends of Youth is CCS's Groundwork partner on the Eastside. This six-year-old pilot project is the first program in the nation to use a “high fidelity wraparound” approach to youth 16 and older who want to get off the streets but have repeatedly failed to, says Schubert. 

Here’s how Groundwork's wraparound facilitators help build personal support teams with young adults entrenched in homelessness:

Clients draw “eco-maps of whoever has been connected with them during their lives, even if the relationship is strained,” says Schubert. From this map a client selects a team of people from whom he or she is willing to accept help. Anyone the client identifies as unsafe is excluded from the team. The group meets over a period of six to nine months. Faraway relatives and friends can Skype-in to meetings.

A client might include a pastor, a shelter staffer, a former neighbor, an uncle, and a sister on his team, along with his drug counselor and case manager. “We specialize in bringing families into our work,” says Schubert. In 2013, 55 percent of the Kent support teams included a parent; in 2014 it was 60 percent. And with separate service providers working together as team members, says Schubert, Groundwork can leverage public resources while streamlining the client’s efforts.

The team brainstorms next steps that will move the young person toward ultimate goals. The personal nature of the meetings moves clients to confide their hopes and dreams. Schubert recalls one young woman who had once taken dance classes and wanted to focus on dance. That may not sound like a solid path toward self-sufficiency for a perennially homeless 20-something. But Groundwork tries to connect clients with some genuine interest, then propose a few small tasks to perform in that area.

Because small steps add up. They strengthen the will and ability to be housed and stay housed. Living under a roof can be hard when the independence and casual comradeship of street life starts to seem rosier than a more confined, perhaps lonesome environment where rules must be followed.

The young woman’s team suggested that she volunteer at a dance studio and shadow a professional dancer. They also helped her choose a few other manageable, self-identified goals she might reach during the team’s tenure. As she renewed her sense of who she really was and what she could achieve, she took steps toward enrolling in dance classes. Finally, the team could tackle the question of housing. In the past “she had self-sabotaged any housing opportunity,” Schubert says. Now, “with a support team around her, including her brother, she fulfilled some tasks and got the confidence.”

Maintaining housing is a Groundwork priority, so each client’s team convenes every two or three months to follow up after the young client’s program ends. If a client returns to the streets, “the team comes together again," says Schubert, "and we can show them what they learned from being housed.”

Schubert (at left) concedes that Groundwork is labor-intensive. But this pilot project got 125 young adults to move indoors last year despite many years of depending on homeless services. In 2012-13, 97 percent of program graduates exited Groundwork with housing, including 49 percent who moved into a stable home with a family member or friend, and 79 percent remained housed during their support team followup. As a stability rate, especially for a cohort so severely challenged, “this is high,” Schubert says.

These innovations are changing the landscape of youth homelessness programs. Last month the Initiative to End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness and King County awarded CCS and Friends of Youth $150,000 to support their family reunification work. Still, these programs and the effort at prevention itself remain seriously underfunded. And there are consequences, both human and financial.

Claire Petersen, shelter program manager at Auburn Youth Services, recalls one teen who had stayed at the program's South King County Youth Shelter and "left feeling comfortable going home to work things out with his mom." When their rapprochement failed, the boy walked for three hours through the rural sprawl of South King County back to the shelter, on a January night, in a T-shirt. All four shelter beds were taken. When shelter staffers asked what would help him until a bed became available, he said, “’Get my mom’s gun and shoot myself.’” He was taken to the hospital and placed on suicide watch. “With more funding we could take those kids,” wrote Petersen in an email, and help their families.

We can talk about ‘family values’ forever," says YouthCare's Melinda Giovengo. “But if we’re not willing to help families that are trying with their kids, the talk doesn't mean much.”

Photo of Scott Schubert and Safe Place sign by Judy Lightfoot. All other photos by Allyce Andrew.

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