Youth Homelessness in the Bay Area
San Francisco has the highest rate of unsheltered homeless youth in the country. Gaps in the systems designed to care for vulnerable young people—child welfare, mental health, and juvenile justice, for example—too often result in youth falling through holes in the safety nets. 40 percent of all foster youth will experience homelessness in their lifetime and 20 percent will be classified as chronically homeless within two years after leaving foster care.
Engaging, Supporting, and Connecting Homeless Youth to Services
While the Bay Area is rich in resources for vulnerable youth who are homeless or faced with the prospect of homelessness, a disconnect exists when it comes to youth accessing those services.
The SPARK Initiative (Stable Pathways to Achievement, Resilience, and Knowledge) is led by Youth Peer Advocates that have recent lived experience in homelessness, foster care, and/or juvenile justice systems in Bay Area counties. Utilizing collaborative service teams, Youth Advocates work alongside peer-to-peer case managers — with specialized support from a civil legal advocate, social worker, and/or mental health clinician, as needed — to intervene in youth homelessness and connect youth with existing resources through co-located partnerships with local service organizations. SPARK staff provide youth with support on their path toward self-sufficiency by helping each young person develop a “Life Plan” and brokering needed services on a case-by-case basis.
National research supports this observation and documents that children and youth involved with systems of care have experienced disproportionately high rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and traumatic stresses. Most youth who have experienced complex trauma have learned to adapt to these circumstances in order to survive, often using unhealthy coping strategies that limit youth’s potential for healing and long-term health. The post-traumatic stress caused by past ACES is limiting to youth and often manifests as behavioral issues, substance abuse and other negative outcomes including a high incidence of homelessness, incarceration, unemployment and mental illness. Longitudinal research also demonstrates that ACES also lead to difficulty in forming healthy relationships and a tendency to not engage with established support systems. Professionals often do not make a connection between symptoms (e.g., nightmares, temper flare-ups, depression) and past events, and young people may minimize symptoms in order to convince adults or peers that they are not affected by traumatic experiences. The end result of these behaviors are often youth being discharged from services which, in turn, leads young people to be untrusting of services and they choose not to access ready supports.
To best support homeless youth in the Bay Area and respond to the effects that past trauma has had on these youth, the SPARK staff spend their time preparing youth for progressively increased responsibility and freedom in the community; facilitating youth-community interaction and involvement; and working with the youth and targeted community support systems on traits needed for constructive interaction and the youth's successful adjustment to the services.
These practices are directly in line with SPARK’s ultimate goal of supporting all youth to believe that they are capable, lovable and worthy of success.
Another primary impact of the SPARK Youth Peer Advocates has been to develop the capacity of local service providers to effectively engage hard-to-serve youth. SPARK has been called upon in various instances to support and assist some organizations to become “youth friendly”. This term is often used to identify organizations that have specific policies and practices in place to ensure that services are delivered through a lens that takes into account the individual and unique needs of youth.
Youth Success Stories
Regina is twenty years old, living in Alameda County and is eligible for extended foster care but was not utilizing services. A SPARK Youth Peer Advocate met her during a presentation to her cohort. Regina expressed interest and an immediate need for support with finding housing. She stated that her current living situation was not only uncomfortable but also temporary. The person she was living with was once her foster mother. Due to the lack of funds awarded to the caretaker after 18, Regina was no longer welcome, and the host was intentionally making her uncomfortable. Regina was staying anywhere she could just to avoid going back to the same uninviting environment. Her unstable housing was affecting all areas of her life and ultimately forced her to leave school.
Regina and the SPARK Youth Peer Advocate began to meet a couple times each week. Together they discussed Regina’s best options and the SPARK Advocate taught her some coping skills to deal with stress she was experiencing. After dozens of follow up calls made by the SPARK Youth Peer Advocate, office visits facilitated by the SPARK Youth Peer Advocate and multiple emails Regina was finally able to meet with a housing coordinator from Alameda County ILSP. The SPARK Youth Peer Advocate accompanied Regina to meet with the coordinator and acted as both an advocate and coach to Regina. Utilizing the skills Regina practiced with her SPARK Youth Peer Advocate, she was able to speak out about her needs and vocalize the support she needed in order to secure safe and stable housing.
With friends facing a lot of the same struggles, Regina began to speak up and advocate for her friends and has begun referring her friends to the SPARK project. Regina has transformed significantly from the traumatized bashful youth, to an empowered young lady ready to help her peers reach stability. Regina is now employed as a youth mentor for a local organization, has returned to school and is enjoying her new safe and stable housing.