Few conditions are as tragic as a young person facing homelessness. At exactly the time when an individual should be experiencing the start of a promising adulthood, it is especially heartbreaking for them to be without the stability of a home.
For many young adults, particularly those who identify as LGBTQ+, New York City is a place they look to find a welcoming environment. Unfortunately, it’s also short on affordable housing. There are an estimated 5,000 young adults between the ages of 16–24 in the city who are homeless—with only about 500 beds to house them.
Yet there is hope. Nonprofits like Jericho Project are beginning to implement solutions for housing, employment, and mental health support focused on the needs of young adults. The most important of these is a foundation of trust. For most young adults who have been homeless—living on the streets, in shelters, or couch surfing—their ability to trust caretaking adults has been compromised. They may have aged out of foster care. Their families may have fallen into financial peril or poor health. Or they may have been rejected by their families due to gender identity.
As a result of these kinds of trauma, many young adults who are homeless suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a terrible irony that exactly at a time when they need to be supported by housing or counseling experts, they are wired to be fiercely independent. So how can a nonprofit successfully engage homeless young adults and help them onto a path of fulfillment? In designing Jericho Project’s young adult program for people ages 18–25, we sought guidance from leaders in the young adult and LGBTQ+ communities. Together, with our own experience serving formerly homeless individuals and families, we offer these guidelines:
- First, get them housed. It’s key to get young adults off the streets and out of shelters. They must have stability and a sense of safety to develop the emotional capabilities they need as adults. In supportive housing residences, such as Jericho’s Walton House, they have both independence and control, with their own leases, keys, and responsibility to pay a portion of their income, which can include public assistance. They also can get housing through supportive apartments arranged by nonprofits. In Jericho’s case, the apartments are made affordable by donor funds or the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nonprofits can encourage landlords to participate in such programs by vouching for young people and intervening if there are misunderstandings or difficulties.
- Provide counseling and social support. Young adults who have been adrift without guidance in their teen years need basic skills. These can range from managing their finances—paying rent on time, for example—to more specific help in writing résumés and preparing for job interviews. A supportive housing residence is an ideal setting for this kind of assistance, because staff members see residents every day and can knock on their doors if they miss appointments or events.
- Build trust through consistency. To get and keep young adults engaged, staff must demonstrate at all times that they won’t let them down. While staff don’t take on the role of a parent, it is crucial for them to model strong parenting maxims of consistency and reliability. It also may mean having someone available after hours and on weekends, when young people are more likely to face challenges.
- Create an inclusive culture. Young people are especially responsive to staff who have had similar experiences, such as peer mentors who are close in age and have lived in supportive housing, or who have had difficulties due to gender identity. Likewise, it’s vital to follow inclusive cultural practices such as using preferred pronouns in all communications. Staff titles also are important in conveying that young adults are partners in their success. For example, they may not want to see a “case manager” but are happy to talk with a “life coach.”
- Make it fun. It may seem obvious, but laughter and relaxation are the glue of collaborative communities. Yoga, poetry classes, or evening group dinners can draw out young people who otherwise might retreat to their rooms.
In sum, it takes a compassionate approach to successfully engage young adults who have experienced isolation early in life. A Walton House program manager expressed it well when he said his vision is to “create a place where young adults can get their formative teen years back. This includes the push and pull with authority figures and the freedom to experiment with different interests before dedicating themselves to a path.” Bridging that gap for young adults helps create healthier and fuller communities for all of us.