Support Systems for Rural Homeless Youth Demonstration Project Summary 2010/2011
In the Fall of 2008, the Family and Youth Services Bureau launched its Support Systems for Rural Homeless Youth, or SSRHY, demonstration in three states, Colorado, Iowa, and Minnesota. The following year, three additional states -- Oklahoma, Nebraska and Vermont -- were added. The demonstration's purpose was to explore ways to improve the delivery of services and supports to youth in rural communities who have little or no connection to stable housing and family situations. This includes runaway and homeless youth as well as youth making unsuccessful transitions out of foster care.
Challenges Facing Rural Youth
SSRHY has taught us many things. First, rural homelessness differs from urban homelessness in that it is less visible. The image of youth being idle on the streets, sleeping on steam grates or panhandling on street corners does not fit the rural reality. Rural homelessness instead is characterized by "couch-surfing" -- youth finding transient and temporary shelter in the homes of friends, neighbors and family. Secondly, this "invisibility" poses two distinct challenges for the demonstration: (1) it allows rural communities to be largely unaware of the problem; and (2) it presents challenges to youth providers in estimating the extent of rural youth needs.
Third, SSRHY has confirmed the difficulties faced by rural communities -- low, no or dwindling employment opportunities; low, no, or negative population growth; low or no growth in the housing stock; as well as fewer facilities and resources to meet the communities' needs. Fourth, next to the lack of housing, lack of transportation emerges as the most critical impediment to serving RHY rural youth by limiting access to the services and supports that underlie SSRHY's "Connectivity Goals."
Fifth, we are learning that our SSRHY rural communities are less likely to exhibit duplications in their services delivery. Pressures to serve youth with relatively sparse resources has, in many cases, forced high levels of provider cooperation and collaboration. And the relatively smaller networks of providers has made communication and collaboration easier than might be the case in larger urban communities. A sixth lesson from the demonstration is that rural youth are at particularly high risk because, more so than urban youth, they have little to do and nowhere to go do it. The single loudest complaint we hear from young people in the SSRHY demonstration is the need for safe places and something to do.
Addressing the Challenges
The six demonstration projects have grappled with these issues in unique ways tailored to the needs, circumstances and capacities of their collaborations. The following highlights only a few examples of their efforts to meet these challenges.
Invisibility: One of the early major efforts in SSRHY has been to raise awareness in the targeted communities so as to "uncloak" this invisible monster. The project in Colorado, for instance, mounted a campaign featuring a cartoon image whose slogan is, "A Couch is Not a Home." The cartoon and slogan have been printed on projects t-shirts, brochures, newsletters, placards and billboards as part of their information dissemination efforts and is now a well-known message within the Colorado Demonstration communities.
Vermont Coalition for Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs (VCRHYP) created an exhibit called The HighLow Project that went on exhibit in the Capitol Rotunda, in Washington, D.C., between October 2 and October 8, 2011. The HighLow Project consists of stories from 12 RHY youth. Each story has two parts: one recounting a moment that marked a high point in the young person's life; and the other marking a low point. The exhibit presents each of the stories by displaying the two photos along with an audio track, recorded by the youth that describes the high or low point depicted in the photo. The audio track is accessed through a telephone located underneath each photo.
In 2009, the State of Minnesota provided funds for an evaluation through the MN Runaway and Homeless Youth Act to FYSB's SSRHY grantee. It was the first-ever evaluation of state Runaway and Homeless Youth programs. As part of that, in 2010, the SSRHY grantee conducted 19 youth focus groups around the state where youth received $20 stipends to do a spoken word activity as well as fill out a survey.
Rural Employment Challenges: One creative approach to the lack of rural employment growth is "Caring Hearts" -- a youth-run business, started by the Iowa Project in 2010. Caring Hearts provides lawn and garden care services to the elderly and disabled in the Boone community targeted by the project. As part of this enterprise youth are employed by the business and connected with mentors and other supporters who can assist with job training and supervision. In a separate initiative, the IA project has collaborated with Iowa Comprehensive Human Services (a workforce development provider) to expand an existing jobs placement program so youth can work with a local business for six to eight weeks with their salaries paid by the program. Job preparedness classes are also provided for the participating youth. The expectation is that the business will retain the youth as an employee at the end of the job training. Eight youth are currently placed with five local businesses.
FYSB's SSRHY grantee in Vermont has launched a pilot project called YouthWork in two VT communities, Rutland and Newport. The Newport pilot is connected to the SSRHY project. The goal of YouthWork is to provide the kind of vocational preparation that will assist RHY and foster youth in seeking, obtaining and retaining on-going employment. It focuses largely on providing training and professional development for the Division of Children and Families staff and their partners around the employment needs and challenges of young people. Casey Family Programs volunteered to create a training program for the YouthWork Pilot and conducted the training in both sites as part of the YouthWork kickoff.
The Nebraska project enrolls many of its SSRHY youth in education and training programs at Western Nebraska Community College. WNCC offers certification programs that range from six weeks to two years in areas such as healthcare, trucking, and machine repair that are in high demand in the Panhandle.
Housing: To address their housing challenges, the Vermont project has been combining SSRHY monies with funds received from the State Office of Economic Opportunity to support transitional housing. With these funds the project leased a newly constructed, 5-unit apartment building in downtown Newport to provide SSRHY transitional housing.
On March 31, 2011, the Governor of Colorado signed HB 11-1079 into law. The new statute expands safe housing capacity statewide with the new concept of licensed host family homes. It also creates an option for the court to evaluate the potential for youth to become homeless after discharge from care and, where deemed necessary, to extend a youth in foster care up to the age of 21 to complete his/her self-sufficiency goals.
Transportation: The Iowa Project created a bicycle loan program where the City of Boone Police Department donated the unclaimed bicycles it was holding for use by RHY youth on a revolving basis. The project is planning to expand this program into a business by recruiting a retired community member to act as a mentor and instructor for a youth-led bicycle repair business.
Maximizing Collaboration: The Nebraska Project located in the Nebraska Panhandle involves four counties and is centered around town of Scottsbluff. Its partners, the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation; the Panhandle Partnership for Human Services; the Western Nebraska Community College; Community Partnership of Western Nebraska; and other local agencies are pursuing an ambitious goal -- to create a "Full Prevention System" that de-categories youth programs and "blends and braids" youth funding in ways that create a more comprehensive and integrated approach to meeting the needs the young people of the region.
Safe Places with Something to Do: All of the SSRHY projects have engaged youth in positive youth development activities and several have opened facilities to combined these activities with the need for safe places for youth to go and things to do. In March 2011, the Oklahoma project attracted more than 100 people to the grand opening of "The Spot" -- a facility in Watonga, OK that was leased for SSRHY. The Spot received generous donations of recreational equipment from the community, including fitness equipment from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of NE. SSRHY youth designed the interior space including the color scheme and did all of the painting and clean-up in preparation for the opening. The Spot has become the focal point in Watonga for youth meetings, networking and recreation.
Similarly, last spring, the Iowa project opened a youth facility called The HUB in Boone, IA. Like The Spot in OK, The HUB is intended both as a safe place for SSRHY youth networking as well as a "HUB" for youth services. Services provided consist of: individual skill building, life skill groups with DMACC (Des Moines Area Community College), Dream Teams, Job Placement, Caring Hearts, and Case Management. Youth come to The HUB both by appointment and as drop-ins.
In the area of things to do, the Colorado project created the Trust for Rural Youth (TRY) -- an innovative, youth-driven process for disbursing funds for youth-selected, youth-driven projects in the demonstration communities. Youth in each of the six targeted communities identified social marketing, outreach and community awareness activities that would get candidates for TRY funding.