The Voices of Young People Highlight the SSRHY Annual Meeting
Support Systems for Rural Homeless Youth (SSRHY) is a 5-year, 6-state collaborative demonstration funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) with the Children’s Bureau (CB) as a supporting partner. SSRHY is aimed at improving adult outcomes for rural youth who are approaching young adulthood and independence but who have few or no connections to a supportive family or community resources. This includes runaway and homeless youth and youth transitioning out of foster care.
Ten such youth were among the 36 representatives from the Demonstration sites, who attended the 2- day SSRHY Annual Meeting in Chicago last August. As part of their conference experience, they were asked to work as a group in order to plan and present a conference session that would bring their voices to the Conference. The youth met each other and their facilitator for the first time over a FYSB/CB-sponsored ice cream social on the evening of their arrival in Chicago. And with a total of only four hours of preparation time spread over two sessions, the young people conducted the final session of the Annual Meeting and presided over what the meeting evaluations showed as the highest rated session of the Conference.
The Youth Session featured individual presentations where each youth shared his/her personal story and then gave some insights into how they viewed the challenge of SSRHY in the context of their lives and the local communities in which they live. Among the many lessons that emerged were the following:
- Rural Communities don't acknowledge that they have a homeless youth problem. Unlike urban situations, rural youth homelessness is mostly "couch surfing" with friends and relatives. It's mostly off the streets.
- We need to solve the rural transportation problem. SSRHY youth feel trapped in space. Lack of transportation means lack of access to pivot resources -- education, health and dental care, counseling, social and employment and training services.
- Place is important. SSRHY youth need a place to go where, at a minimum, they can feel safe, welcomed and comfortable -- a supervised, protected environment where they can network and meet with friends.
- SSRHY Youth need life mentors -- people in their lives who can help them learn simple lessons (e.g., preparing your own food is much cheaper than eating at McDonalds) and do ordinary things like laundry or cooking.
- Youth need other youth. Several of the youth reported that the most painful part of their lives is feeling alone both personally and circumstantially. And while they acknowledge the importance of caring adults, they really want and value friendships with peers -- not just other kids but youth who have had experiences and challenges similar to their own.
- SSRHY youth worry about jobs and careers. These young people can see that their rural communities are foundering. Many are resigned to the idea that they must leave to secure a future and they worry about how difficult it is to make the necessary education, training and employment connections they need from where they are.
These lessons were well-received by the adult attendees and FYSB resolved to continue its practice of providing opportunities for youth voice in all of its meetings and conferences.