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“We’ll talk about things like, ‘Oh there’s chicken thighs on sale and I could get those instead of just a jar of peanut butter and a small loaf of bread to fit in my backpack,’” she says. The goal is to get kids thinking beyond tomorrow to six months or even a year down the road. Another critical goal is showing kids that despite experiences with neglect or abandonment, they are not alone.
That’s exactly what another Friends of Youth caseworker, Brittany Stafiej, helps her clients realize. Stafiej focuses on what’s called the wraparound model, which weaves a web of support around homeless youth. The web might include caring relatives, foster parents, counselors or friends. She assists clients in mending ties with family members, or cultivating bonds with other mentors they may have in their lives. The support networks then help youth turn vague aspirations of “getting a job” or “getting healthier” into concrete steps, like volunteering to beef up their resume or joining the gym. This builds self-confidence and resourcefulness, Stafiej explains.
Stafiej experienced the power of this kind of support system herself growing up in a working class household. Though she was never homeless, her mom struggled to pay the mortgage and fed her boxed macaroni dinners to get through a tight budget. They fought frequently, and that strained relationship meant Stafiej couldn’t count on her mother to support her when applying to college. Instead, Stafiej depended on an aunt and family friends to guide her though the application and financial aid processes. Their support was essential for her success.
By day, The Landing is a drop-in center for 15-22 year olds. At night, it's a shelter for 18-24 year olds. Credit: Allyce Andrew.
Like Stafiej, Tolani Ogunyoku doesn’t come from a privileged background. His mom, an undocumented immigrant from Nigeria, turned to the Salvation Army for food, clothes and child care. Despite his disadvantaged upbringing, Ogunyuko never had to spend a night on the streets like his clients. Today, he says, “I get to go home after work and I know there’s food in the fridge. I don’t even have to think about it.”
Staying at the shelter, while temporary, does help his clients to move past operating in a state of emergency. Instead they can imagine what any other 18-24 year old would about where to go to college or how to nurture a caring relationship with a significant other.
The caseworker’s job comes with daily frustrations — long waiting lists for housing, not enough jobs, seeing kids fail or give up. But Ogunyoku and his colleagues persevere, and manage to stay sane within the chaos. What drives them is the resilience of their young clients, and the hope that one day, they’ll have somewhere to call home.
Photos by Allyce Andrea. Go here for all Crosscut's coverage of Kids@Risk.
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