Engaging Youth, the Next Generation Working to End Homelessness

I was eight or nine when the idea of working with people experiencing homelessness first crossed my mind. It had been a long day and some relatives and I were walking to dinner. The city was crowded and as we passed under a building’s scaffolding, through the fast-walking legs of adults, I saw a man crouched by the edge of the sidewalk. What struck me was that everyone ignored him. It seemed to me that I was the only one who could see him. Once we reached the restaurant I broke into tears. When I got home I explained what happened to my mom. “Maybe you can work with the homeless when you’re older” she said.

Luckily, during my freshman year of high school I was introduced to Back on My Feet (BoMF). BoMF is an “organization that uses running to help those experiencing homelessness change the way they see themselves so they can make real change that results in employment and independent living”. BoMF works in eleven cities, partnering with shelters in each city, and organizing runs every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5:30 a.m. It was during these 5:30 a.m. runs that I had a realization—I wanted to learn about the possible solutions to homelessness and how my generation could get involved.

With this in mind I began The Last Generation Project. I initiated the project by enlisting the guidance of educators and those currently working to eliminate homelessness in order to identify (1) programs necessary for the reduction of homelessness, as well as (2) the undergraduate and graduate educational paths that will equip current high school students to continue the work of our predecessors and make sure that my generation is the LAST GENERATION to struggle with the existence of homelessness in America.

One day in July I received an email from my soon-to-be mentors, Dr. Staci Perlman, a professor and researcher at University of Delaware and University of Pennsylvania, and Dan Fox, of the Cloudburst Group. They offered to send my project to their colleagues. Naturally, I was thrilled!

The responses I got reflected the creative thoughts of leaders throughout the region and the country.  Upon reviewing the responses, I began to see recurring patterns.  Successful housing crisis response systems are built around evidence-based, person-centered strategies that focus on housing as the primary solution to homelessness. This includes the importance of implementing Housing First across all programs and increasing access to housing and supports that meet people’s unique needs, ranging from rapid re-housing to permanent supportive housing. Other less frequently mentioned, but equally important solutions, included the necessity of connecting people to mainstream resources to provide access to things like well-paying jobs, ‘trauma-informed services’, universal health care, parenting, and child care supports.

One of the proposed solutions that particularly interested me was implementing policies that reward, not punish, families for their progression towards financial stability. Even after families access housing, it is necessary to ensure that there are programs and community networks available to newly housed families that foster financial growth while maintaining critical supports so that families can gain financial independence, preventing further episodes of homelessness from occurring.

When it comes to educational paths that can help young adults become leaders in the effort to end homelessness, the feedback I received reinforced the idea that due to the myriad of factors that cause homelessness, one can work towards ending homelessness from virtually any educational or career path: affordable housing developers, educators, employers, etc. In fact, it is imperative that we have people from diverse disciplines focusing on ending homelessness so that we can develop new and inventive ideas. In this way it sends the message to young people that they have the freedom to pursue their interests and use that to help others.  Anyone can get involved!

Educating my generation about the complexities of homelessness is extremely important. Many of my peers have never had the opportunities that I have had to meet and become friends with people experiencing homelessness. Additionally, while educational curricula studying the issues of economic inequality and homelessness can be found in colleges, it is extremely rare to find a class studying these issues in high school. When classes that address societal issues as a whole exist, the benefits are endless. During my junior year I took an interdisciplinary class called “Viewpoints on Modern America” that studied the forces that shaped America. This class helped students understand that societal issues are the result of complex forces. When students are not encouraged to interact with people experiencing homelessness and are not exposed to classes that challenge them to think more deeply about the causes of societal issues such as homelessness, false and damaging stereotypes are accepted as truth.

I have been fortunate to meet and share ideas with other students outside of my school interested in working with those experiencing homelessness.  Nancy Segoviano in Los Angeles created a blanket drive to collect blankets for people experiencing homelessness and Nadya Okamoto in Portland started Camions of Care, an organization that addresses the natural needs of all women through advocacy and distribution of feminine hygiene products.

There is a real opportunity to engage youth in our country. They possess the passion, creativity and will needed to end homelessness.  Engaging my generation can start by educating youth about homelessness, debunking the false stereotypes about those experiencing homelessness and offering the opportunity to get involved, like volunteering with the upcoming youth Point-in-Time count, volunteering with community agencies such as Back on My Feet, or trying out a new idea with friends that can make a difference like Nancy and Nadya have. I have faith in my generation and I believe that we have the capacity to bring about social change.

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Marley Duchovnay is a senior in high school at Radnor High School in Pennsylvania. Since her freshman year in high school she has been an active member of Back On My Feet Philadelphia, running with men and women experiencing homelessness and recently served as a team leader for Team House of Passage. Marley is currently completing her work on The Last Generation Project and invites interested blog readers to participate by contacting her at thelastgenerationproject@gmail.com. Marley will be attending college in the fall where she intends on continuing to work with men and women experiencing homelessness.