How Do You Help Young People? Listen to Them!

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“How do you help young people? listen to them! It really is that simple. Sandwiches are sandwiches, a shower is a shower, a bed’s a bed! But for too long as a society we’ve not empowered young people enough to give us their voice and tell us what they need, and if we listen to young people, they’ll tell us how to help them.” ~ Chris Nelson

This video on homeless youth and youth homelessness in Boulder, Colorado gets a little long, and Chris Nelson, program director at Attention Homes, said something near the end so important that I not only started this post with it – I made it the title!

If you’ve never had to access homeless services you’re lucky. It’s a broken system. Programs are funding driven, not people driven, and rarely are homeless people treated like consumers. No homeless family ever said: “Please separate our family by gender and put us all into one room with all the other homeless people. Please only have bathrooms with two stalls. Please kick everyone out in the morning, even the young babies, and even in bad weather.”, but that’s the typical model for a family homeless shelter.

If we are ever going to end homelessness, we must start designing programs based on what people actually need – that means listening to them. Young, old, middle-aged – people are people and they will tell you what they need if you are willing to listen. Brands figured this out a long time ago, yet homeless services still does not consider a homeless person a consumer, mainly because a homeless person has little choice in what, where and who they receive services from. I do believe that will change soon!

This road trip trip didn’t have a lot of time so Boulder was not part of the plan, yet I kept getting tweets from @attnhomes asking me to visit. I actually hit the Denver area on a holiday, and holiday’s normally are a wash, but the leadership team from Attention Homes, a runaway and homeless youth organization in Boulder, all came in to meet with me and talk about homelessness. I was impressed they came in on a holiday and impressed with their services!
Homeless group
Boulder attracts travelers like no place else I have seen. Travelers are a subculture of homeless youth that are known for hopping trains. You’ve seen them hanging out in your city. They almost have a uniform wearing brown clothes and often have dogs and musical instruments. Most of the kids seem happy, and the hippie lifestyle looks attractive. Truth is, many of these kids are “throwaways” often running from horrible family situations. They find community with each other, but as young adults this lifestyle does not come with any professional or even social development. One youth leader once told me she was concerned because these kids don’t get the nutrition they need. As fun as the traveling lifestyle may look, I have often wondered how many of these kids end up as chronic homeless in their adult years.

I will say this, in Boulder I did hang out with a few travelers that I believe were living this lifestyle by choice. One kid I met, probably had a few years of college in before he decided to go off on an adventure. Others were after a minimalist life, claiming freedom was their driving force.

Boulder has so many travelers, even the travelers complain there are too many. One girl with a cat said she normally does good panhandling, but in Boulder there is too much competition. This is not just a panhandling issue, but so many travelers come to the area in the summer resources are taxed.

Boulder is famous for being a choice destination for hippies in the 60s, and it’s impossible to change that history. Boulder is always going to draw travelers. My concern is that at some point, if they haven’t already, the city will start criminalizing homelessness as a band-aid solution, which will not work. What I suggest the city and residents of Boulder do is support services like Attention Homes, that offer help and a safe place to hang out.

I really enjoyed meeting everyone at Attention Homes, and Chris Nelson is not only brilliant, he’s a lot of fun. Yes, we had a few laughs during this video interview, but there are some very important topics covered about helping homeless youth. Please remember that the views expressed in this and other videos are not necessarily the views of anyone I am connected to professionally. It’s just simply two new friends talking about helping people!

Are you listening?

This Invisible People road trip is made possible by  Sevenly and Virgin Mobile USA, who are partnering to end youth homelessness through Virgin Mobile USA’s initiative, RE*Generation. For more information please click here.

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