Reaching Reno’s homeless youth | nnbusinessview.com

Reaching Reno’s homeless youth

Michele Gehr, MSSW, executive director
Eddy House Youth Resource Center

Every day, approximately 30 to 40 homeless and at-risk youth come through the doors of the Eddy House Youth Resource Center in downtown Reno. Founded in 2011, by Lynette Eddy, the Eddy House was originally a residence purchased for former foster youth who found themselves out on the streets after aging-out of the foster system. "I was recently widowed," says Eddy, "I was looking for a way to deal with my grief and turn a negative into a positive." Eddy had gone back to school and was studying for a master's degree at the UNR School of Social Work when, as part of a school project, she decided to order a pizza and conduct a focus group at an area downtown known as "the Circle." That afternoon, surrounded by hungry teens, Eddy heard the personal stories of the young people living on the streets of Reno and decided to take action.

Five years later, thanks to an initiative put forth by the Community Foundation of Western Nevada, the Eddy House has morphed into a drop-in resource center for northern Nevada's homeless youth. Young people, ages 12-24 are welcome to come by for care and comfort services such as: showers, food, and clothing. Youth know staff by name and our crisis manager provides light case management and referrals to community agencies who work closely with the Eddy House.

Most of our youth feel marginalized by the larger society and need to feel physically and psychologically safe before they will "buy-in" to new programming. We decided that our young people would benefit from the creation of a micro-community. To do this, we started a weekly Family Meeting on Friday afternoons. Through a grant from the Junior League of Reno, we are able to purchase a large meal (most of our youth will not eat anything substantial over the weekend), make announcements, and receive feedback about what is or is not working for them. To get the youth more involved, we use an incentive raffle. Youth who attend groups, help staff, are kind, and participate receive raffle tickets. We draw five tickets each week and raffle off $10 gift cards for prizes.

This spring we added all new programming including a job skills group, partially funded by the Alcoa Foundation to teach youth how to find a job, how to apply, and the social and emotional skills needed to maintain employment. Since the group's creation, Eddy House youth have applied for 124 jobs and 10 youth have actually secured work. While this is encouraging, it is nearly impossible for youth to keep a job without a place to live.

Most of our youth feel marginalized by the larger society and need to feel physically and psychologically safe before they will “buy-in” to new programming.

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Living on the streets is terrifying and 60 percent of our youth report that they are assaulted at least once per week. Reno's homeless youth live in abandoned buildings, in weekly motels, and couch surf with friends or strangers. Our population is 100 percent trauma affected and all have been victims of crimes such as human trafficking, violence, and robbery. We may make progress with our day programming, but youth are often re-traumatized at night and we have to start over in the morning. Success depends on the relationships staff build with our young people over time. "We meet the youth where they are at," says Cassi LeVesque, our crisis manager, "with respect, trust and no judgment."

There are approximately 53,000 homeless youth in the United States, with about 300 in Reno. Homeless youth suffer from depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many homeless youth engage in "survival sex", trading sex for food, clothing, or shelter for the night.

Young people have a greater risk of being homeless if:

Their parents have issues with substance abuse or mental illness;

They have been victims of child abuse or neglect;

Their families have been homeless previously;

They identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender;

They have been in foster care.

The biggest hurdle we face is the lack of affordable housing in Reno. Youth are homeless for very different reasons than adults and research shows that the two populations should not be housed together. Eddy House would like to expand our program to include a 16-bed dormitory-style residential program with the drop-in center attached to provide wrap-around services from our community partners. Seventy percent of our youth have aged-out of the foster system and do not have the family support or emotional skills to live independently. Ideally, youth will cycle through programming that would be tailored to their specific needs and eventually become self-sufficient, productive members of society. A residential program is a preventative measure, as homeless youth will eventually become homeless adults without intervention.

"The way we treat our most vulnerable is a reflection on who we are as a community. These are the community's kids. We can't ignore it," says Lynette Eddy, "These kids are in a constant state of crisis and it's a public health issue."

For more information please call 775-384-1129 or visit http://www.eddyhouse.org.

By Michele Gehr, MSSW, is the executive director Eddy House Youth Resource Center