Interview: Lessons Learned from Decades in the RHY Field

NRPM Shine a Light logo and text reading National Runaway Prevention Month #NRPM2018

The Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) Program, located in the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), is the only federal program dedicated to reducing incidences of youth running away and youth homelessness.  FYSB values collaboration not only within the Washington, DC metro area, but nationally through the Department of Health and Human Services’ 10 regions.  RHY staff collaborates and partners with numerous federal and community agencies, and there is a heavy presence of RHY staff nationwide.  Here’s an opportunity to learn about experiences from some of the most tenured RHY staff including how the RHY Program operated before being in FYSB.

Steve Ice, Youth Services Program Specialist, Region 10 (based in Seattle, WA)

Deborah Oppenheim, Youth Services Program Specialist, Region 9 (based in San Francisco, CA)

How long have you been with the RHY Program and what drew you to this work?

DEBORAH OPPENHEIM: I’ve been with RHY for 20 years. I was working in a different ACF program, which was phased out, and was given my choice of working with Head Start or RHY. It came down to making a bigger difference, being a big fish in a little pond. There seemed like more of a chance for project officers to make an impact with the RHY program, which turned out to be true.  And once I went out on street outreach with Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco, I was hooked!  I got to talk to the young people and the staff, and I’ve never looked back.

STEVE ICE: I’ve worked with a portfolio of FYSB projects since 1990. At that time in Region 9 RHY was in the Children’s Bureau. I picked up the work by accident, upon being given a portfolio of RHY grants. But once I got to know the program I fell in love with it. FYSB work goes to the heart of what it takes to help a person unfold their creative potential even in the face of great adversity. It addresses all the aspects of what the Greek philosophers called eudemonia, a flourishing life of good spirit, a sense of safety, permanency, well-being and interdependent self-sufficiency. It has been my good fortune to work in diverse settings — from southern border towns to arctic villages, from inner city neighborhoods to Native reservations — and see the common challenges and universal hope that communities have for their youth and young adults.

What do you think is the biggest misconception or misunderstanding about runaway and homeless youth?

DO: People from the outside world think that kids want to be homeless or on the street. And indeed they do not, or if they do it’s quite fleeting.

SI: We in the field know it’s a myth. But many people think kids run away for the fun of it, because they’re incorrigible. People assume kids run away to big cities for the services. They assume that the services actually attract homeless people. But in most of our shelters, the kids being served are from the neighborhood and services are scarce. There’s also the perception that there’s something wrong with runaway youth, or that they’re not like “our” kids. But they’re just struggling young people. For whatever reason, their families weren’t able to support them into their adolescent years. They need skills and connections and support to make it through that.

DO: The young people being served — those agencies are saving their lives. They change those kids, who then grow up and pay it forward. It’s a huge and important societal service.

What are your most memorable experiences with grantees and youth they were serving?

SI: Adolescence is a very dynamic time, very flexible. It’s a time to take risks, challenge yourself, and develop significant relationships. As a result, people’s lives can change quickly. I often recall talking with a young woman whose family fled the Cambodian killing fields. She told me that in the prior year, she had been a mule for the gangs and had constantly had a gun in her purse. Since coming to the shelter she had left all that behind, having become involved in a theatre group staging traditional plays with costumes provided by her elders. For her, it was as simple as changing seats on a bus, and this is the magic of adolescence, a time of great transition in the presence of the quality relationships the youth workers in our project can provide.

DO: I’m enamored by babies and little kids, so I always adore going to the Maternity Group Homes. I bring books to them, because I want those little ones to have what my grandchildren have. The things that our agencies are doing are just so heartening. I have met so many wonderful people at programs all over California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, and the Outer Pacific. They bring hope and support not only to the big cities; the RHY agencies are everywhere young people are.

What changes have you seen in the field over time?

DO: Both of us have seen a big increase in the last few years in the realm of commercial sexual exploitation of children. We see so many young people who are in need of the benefits that this work can give them. It used to be that kids ran away because of bad report cards or if they got caught smoking. Now those are the least of the problems they face.

SI: In the past decade I would say the emphasis has been on long-range planning to guarantee that no youth will ever spend a night outside on the streets. This is a significant shift. It is a declaration of a vision together with a demand for accountable outcomes. Our shelters have also become the backstop of an inadequate mental health system. We get young people from families who aren’t getting the supports for those issues.

DO: The issues are more known, more recognized now. But there’s definitely been an increase in the occurrence of them as well. We all read about the opioid scourge now, and that’s a new recognition. It didn’t exist in the same way before. And it’s affecting kids and families all over.

SI: When I first joined FYSB, we dealt with one child at a time. But now we have a larger goal, which is to have no child on the streets, ever. To make youth homelessness rare and brief. The larger picture is, how can we prevent children from becoming homeless in the first place? How many children are affected and what is the incidence? When you look at the ultimate goal, it can be a bit daunting. It just means we have a greater awareness now, nationally, as far as what the challenges are.

As a regional Youth Services Program Specialist, how valuable is partnership and collaboration with other federal and community agencies?

DO: We and our agencies couldn’t exist without our collaborators. The amount of money we give grantees is not sufficient to support their programs. So much is done through fundraising and development. Agencies now have to have strong development departments.  Connections to their communities are even more important now than it was in the past.

SI: There are three areas of collaboration. One is simply outreach partnerships among schools, police, first responders and McKinney-Vento [homeless education] liaisons. Then in the shelter there are important referral partnerships, places that we connect young people with for mental health services, health services, employment opportunities, and more. Last, there’s philanthropic and funding collaboration between agencies in the government, and private and nonprofit sector who are trying to plan sustainable initiatives to prevent youth and young adults from becoming homeless.

DO: One of my grantees just opened a street outreach program, and they received a million dollars from a huge credit union. This isn’t in a major city like Los Angeles or San Diego. There’s no way they could have done this without the help.

See what’s going on nationwide for November’s National Runaway Prevention Month.

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