REACHing Out to Homeless Youth

Gulf Coast


I hope you’ve heard the good news that the Sarasota YMCA recently received a federal grant for a program it calls Street REACH. A project of the Y’s Schoolhouse Link program, Street REACH provides case management, mental-health counseling, and help with basic needs like clothes and transportation so unaccompanied homeless youth in our community can stay safe, find stable housing and become self-sufficient. REACH stands for “Reconnecting Employment, Academics, and Community Housing.” It represents another vital strand in the safety net for teens and young adults with no place to call home.

I’ve written about Schoolhouse Link in this column before, but there’s never enough space to do justice to the life-changing work led by program director Ellen McLaughlin and her staff. Through Street REACH alone, Schoolhouse Link aims to serve 130 homeless teens and young adults next year. With as many as 400 homeless 16- to 24-year-olds in Sarasota County on any given night, the program promises to meet critical needs.

The $132,000 grant secured by the Y is the latest achievement in a collective effort to create a true system of care for Sarasota’s homeless young people. The funding will sustain and expand start-up work that had been funded in part through Gulf Coast Community Foundation by a generous donor over the past two years. That’s a realized goal of the kind of seed investment philanthropy can uniquely provide: to get an innovative program up and running, show real results, and attract more funding from beyond our region to meet local needs.

Street REACH also complements great work by other community partners, like Harvest House, which opened its Youth Center in October to provide a front door to services and support for unaccompanied teens and young adults. It is energizing for everyone involved to see such progress.

A key enhancement coming to Schoolhouse Link’s REACH program is the counseling component. A Sarasota Y survey of homeless youth found that, in addition to most respondents lacking health insurance, a stable income, transportation, and a sustainable source of food, nearly all had mental-health issues too. In another Y survey, the majority of those who replied had a high incidence of childhood trauma, which the Centers for Disease Control identifies as a strong predictor of negative outcomes such as adult alcoholism, intravenous drug use, chronic depression, and more. Yet, less than a quarter said they were seeing a counselor or therapist.

Those 16 to 24 years old who are homeless and on their own are an especially vulnerable group. They often are running from conflict, abuse, neglect or poverty in their homes. Many leave their education because of their homelessness but have little work experience or life skills to fall back on. They’re also subject to high levels of criminal victimization, including sexual exploitation and human trafficking. All of this is especially heartbreaking when you consider that many are in these circumstances because of decisions made by adults in their lives.

But Ellen at Schoolhouse Link never lets us forget that despite such oppressive challenges, the youth that she and her team work with are resilient. They are strong. Words that resonate with them are “smart,” “proud,” and “brave.” Homeless teens and young adults should not be defined by the decisions of others. Their future potential should not be circumscribed by their present circumstances. They are members of our community, so it is up to all of us to hold them close, lift them up, and encourage their individual hopes and dreams.

Mark S. Pritchett is president/CEO of Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

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