Working with Homeless Teens & Their Families in a Shelter Setting

*This post previously was published when I worked for The Prevention Researcher November 17, 2008. This journal on adolescent development is coming to a close this September.

I had the privilege of case managing homeless families for over four years at an agency called ShelterCare here in Eugene, Oregon. The program I worked at was called Brethren Housing, which provided temporary housing for four families and also single adults with mental illness.

Research reports that the primary cause of family homelessness is the cost of housing [http://www.endhomlessnes.org/files/1224_file_FamliesFMac.pdf]. There just isn’t enough low cost housing and the income families bring in is too low for the housing that is available. Five million American households spend more than 50% of their budgets on housing (the federal standard is 30%) or they live in severely substandard conditions. Families often came to us after living at another shelter, having lived with other family members or friends or having lived in their cars. Most families that came to Brethren Housing had not been homeless before, so much of our work revolved around connecting them to services like food stamps or health insurance. Often teens were expected to act like responsible adults, taking care of younger siblings, making meals and overseeing homework. They were likely to be behind in school due to absences and most did not tell their teachers or friends about their homeless situation. Teens were also often privy to all that their parents were going through, which could be a large burden.

One teen who I will call “Sara” was 15 years old. We had just found out her mom was using methamphetamines and would not accept drug treatment, so we had to evict the family. Sara came to meet with me to talk about her concerns with her younger brother having to live with her mom. She felt torn because she wanted to protect her brother but could not stand the friends her mom would go to live with. Her brother, a fifth grader, was too young to go to a shelter with her and so Sara was having to make the tough decision about whether to go in shelter without her brother, or to stay with her family so that she could watch over him.

Many of the teens I worked with had a difficult time in public high school. Not only having to deal with fitting in, usually teens did not have the money to participate in after school sports, and more often than not they were behind in school in several subjects. For elementary aged students there were often after school homework clubs, but by high school their options were slim and relying on their parents for tutoring was usually not an option. These teens often had low self –esteem, suffered from depression, and usually didn’t have belief in being able to attain their dreams as far as their own careers or schooling.

Brethren Housing has worked hard and how has new housing called Afiya.

Brethren Housing has worked hard and now has new housing called Afiya.

Asking for help was also something that seemed difficult for them to do. I would meet with them each week, giving them a weekly contract that might include finding one fun activity to do, completing a homework assignment, and attending a community meeting (something we had once a month for all the residents at the shelter). Often it took awhile to get to know each teen, but it seemed once they saw I was interested in what was going on with their families and how they were doing at school they then would start providing input in to what they wanted the weekly meeting to look like. What I found was that these youth often would bring in homework they needed help with. And while doing this they would also seek advice about a problem with a classmate or how to meet up with a friend by using public transportation while their parent was at work. One thing I could then do with each parent is talk about how to allow their teens to have time to just be kids.

“Julia”, a 16 year old, came to me wanting to look for a job so that she would have money for clothes, other basic necessities and to have money to go to the movies with her friends. Julia was always meticulously dressed and took a lot of pride in her appearance, but she knew the clothing she liked cost money and was not something her mom could focus on saving for when they were trying to save money for housing. One of the first things we did during her meetings was type up her resume together. Then we were able to get online to search for job postings and we did skills building regarding interviews and following up with potential employers. I could sense even after creating her resume with her that she had some increased confidence and excitement when thinking about the possibilities of her future.

Self -care was an important theme to incorporate for all the families, because in times of crisis it was often something they did not do. What things could each family member do to take care of themselves? For some it was journaling, taking a walk, calling a friend, taking a bus ride to go visit someone, taking a bath, reading or listening to music. A teen I’ll call “Sam” knew how to play guitar– talents like this often get pushed aside when families have to bounce from place to place, putting their prized possessions in storage. Playing guitar and listening to music were both self-care goals Sam had for himself. By the end of their stay, Sam and his father were comfortable sharing their artistic talents in their meetings with me. It was fun having family meetings where the whole family would end up talking about “their weekly contracts with Jasmine”. While their contracts were allowing them to stay at the shelter it became something that made them feel important knowing that someone held them accountable and noticed when they finished their list of to dos.

The thing that really struck me working with teens was how open and honest they could be, something their parents often had to work very hard at. Often times I was amazed by how self reflective these teens could be in the midst of all the chaos that had gone on in their lives. I felt honored to be able to be a witness to this and to watch as these teens learned to take the time to communicate their thoughts and feelings with their parents in a more open manner. These families struggled with the pulls of work, chores, and raising kids. Additionally, many of these homeless families also struggled with issues of mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence and the stigma of homelessness, which would only amplify the issues they were facing. The challenge was to find a way to break down those larger goals into smaller steps and to support the whole family along the way.

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