Homeless Youth Speak Out: 8 Tips for Service Providers

T3– November 24, 2015

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I recently developed a training for future homeless shelter staff with members of Y2Y Harvard Square’s Young Adult Advisory Council. After discussing past mistakes service providers have made in interacting with them, we put their words of wisdom and advice on paper. Our goal was to catalyze productive conversations between service providers and users.

The Council is made up of individuals who have been homeless as youth. Some members have obtained some stability, and others are still experiencing homelessness. As the “Adult Advisor” to the Council, I share some highlights here in hopes that their advice will resonate with providers and inspire organizations to authentically involve clients in orienting and training new staff.

Words of Wisdom and Advice for Staff and Volunteers

by Y2Y’s Young Adult Advisory Council

  1. We are so much more than homeless. “Homeless” is not a character trait. It is just where we happen to be at the moment and the situation in which we find ourselves. We are often pretty phenomenal and interesting people—get to know us beyond what you see on the surface—without being too nosy about our histories.
  1. We do not owe you anything for volunteering/working here. While we are appreciative of the supports, services, and time you offer, you will need to earn our friendship, trust, and kindness just like you would in the real world.
  1. Dignity and self-worth are not things you are going to “give” us. Confidence and esteem are byproducts of our own skills and resilience. You can treat us with respect and dignity and can help create opportunities for us to build our skills and showcase our resilience. But, please don’t think you are going to give us self-esteem or dignity. We give these things to ourselves.
  1. Take our criticism and feedback seriously. Though there may be many things going on in our lives that are stressful, we can still be legitimately upset at something you have done. Our anger with you is not because we are “homeless.” It is because you have done something that upsets us. It is important that you don’t invalidate our feelings because other issues might also be contributing to our stress. It is critical that you admit your mistakes. Please know that “I didn’t mean to ______” is not an apology.
  1. Keep your friendship with other staff outside of the space. While we are glad that you enjoy coming to volunteer, please pay attention to us while you are at the shelter. You may have to work harder and endure more discomfort to engage with us than with your peers, but in the end, that is why you are here.
  1. We may “lie” to you. Sometimes it’s because we don’t know you well enough to tell you things. Sometimes it’s just because that is what we feel like saying at the moment. It is not your job to figure out the “truth” or judge us for what we tell you.
  1. Don’t “out” us. We may see you or even know the same people outside of the shelter. Please don’t say to your friends, “I know her from the shelter.” Always respect our confidentiality and take the time to discuss it with us later.
  1. Have fun! And have fun with us. Sometimes what we need more than anything is to take a break from the serious things that are going on in our lives. A game, a movie, or a conversation about trivial current events can be refreshing and can help connect us back to the lighter parts of ourselves.

I deeply appreciate the Youth Council’s wisdom and insight, as well as their ability to articulate the ways well-meaning individuals can inadvertently upset or offend people with whom they are working.