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Mentor a Youth Group to Help Homeless Teens

by Sandra Bynum
The Challenge

Teenage homelessness is a larger problem than many of us realize: One out of every seven youth will run away from home before their 18th birthday. Nearly half of these runaways say that they had been physically abused before running away from home, and about a third were victims of forced sexual activity. While day-to-day survival on the streets can be harsh, many homeless teens find this existence preferable to the abusive environment they left.

Other homeless teens were forced out of their homes by parents who couldn't handle them anymore. These "throwaway teens" take to the streets feeling unwanted and uncared for. They quit school and move to the busy sidewalks and parks of larger cities, where most eventually abuse drugs or alcohol, become even more detached, and acquire an overwhelming sense of resentment towards society. Many of these youth become violent — or victims of violent crimes.

There is a misconception that homeless kids can easily take control of their lives by getting a job or returning home. In fact, minimum wages in the United States are usually too low to get a homeless person off the streets. A homeless teen's lack of maturity and work experience usually means finding a job is unlikely anyway. Going home means returning to an abusive or otherwise intolerable situation — not considered an option by most runaways.

Outreach programs all over the nation have begun to address the needs of this hidden population of homeless youth. The availability of shelters and other services for homeless children makes a striking difference in their quality of life. While homeless teens typically have no interest in returning to their abusive home environments, they are interested in receiving help. On their wish lists are things like a place to sleep, regular meals, showers, job training, and medical care. Programs for homeless teens can provide these wished for services as well as counseling and crisis intervention.

Given their previous interactions with adults, homeless teens are often not eager to trust others, even those with the best intentions. Many outreach organizations have found that homeless teens are more receptive to efforts from others their own age. With the help of caring mentors, youth groups and teen clubs can assist in outreach endeavors. When you mentor a youth group to help homeless teens, you not only help runaways to find safety and hope, you empower youth volunteers with the confidence that they can make a difference.

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The first step to mentoring youth groups in their efforts to help homeless teens is to understand the key issues surrounding homelessness and the causes and characteristics of homeless youth. Fundamental Issues to Prevent and End Youth Homelessness contains the "Ten Essentials Your Community Needs to Prevent and End Youth Homelessness," designed by the National Partnership to End Youth Homelessness.

You can also download educational materials about homelessness. In addition, you can direct kids to explore DoSomething.org, a teen-oriented website that promotes community activism. Here, they'll learn about homeless kids and what other kids are doing about it.

As a youth group mentor, you might also want to get additional downloadable tools and hands-on publications designed to assist youth leaders. Through these free publications, you will learn how to effectively help kids who want to make a difference through civic activism. Youth group resources are available at the Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development.

If you have a church or community youth group to work with, it's time to get started! If not, find a youth group in your local community and volunteer. You might also work with your own teenagers and a group of their friends. If you are a teacher or associated with teens through a school, find out if there is a Stand Up for Kids Club chapter in your area and get your kids involved. Stand Up for Kids is a nationally acclaimed outreach organization dedicated to the rescue of homeless and street kids. Their outreach programs consist of Stand Up for Kids clubs in high schools and colleges that support local programs through service projects and collection drives.

Now you'll need to find out about local organizations that deal with homelessness in your area. You can do this by visiting the National Coalition for the Homeless online directory of local homeless service organizations.

Contact the homeless organizations in your community and ask about volunteer opportunities for young people. If there is a shelter for homeless teens in your area, how can your kids help out safely? What kinds of things do the homeless shelters need? Some youth shelters require onsite volunteers to be 18 or older, but there are still many things that teens can do.

Here are a few ideas for youth group activities:

  • Hold drives throughout the year to collect things that homeless kids need, such as sturdy shoes; clean, casual clothing; hygiene kits (shampoo, soap, toothbrushes and paste, etc.); canned foods and bottled water. Many youth shelters also need recreational items such as books, DVDs (rated PG-13 or lower), and board games. Christmas gift certificates for food, movies, clothing, and CDs are greatly appreciated, as are educational and art supplies, journals, backpacks, and blankets.
  • Hold a site beautification day. Your youth group can sort clothing, wash windows, clean, and paint. They can beautify the grounds by mowing, watering, and planting donated flowers and ornamentals.
  • Serve meals. Your group might collect donations to cover the cost of a special meal, then either purchase the food or have the agency order and prepare it. Then, your kids will serve the meal and all can enjoy it together. This also works well with potlucks. Each participant receives a food assignment, and brings it hot and ready to serve.
  • Volunteer at the youth shelter office. Answer phones, type up letters and newsletters, stuff envelopes, do clerical work. Volunteer agencies are always under-staffed and under-funded, and almost always welcome office assistance. While sharpening office skills, teens in youth groups can often bring renewed enthusiasm and fresh ideas to the helm.
  • Sign up for the Stand Up for Kids monthly newsletter. Learn more about preventing runaways through this organization's Don’t Run Away Program, which high school and college students present to elementary and middle school kids.
  • Organize and plan events for homeless kids, sheltered or not. Youth groups can plan concerts, dinners, talent shows, carnivals, movies, and game nights. Encourage them to share their hobbies and interests to help street kids focus on just being kids, feeling safe, and having fun.

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