Lizzy Lyons, a College of Santa Fe graduate, is the program director for Youth Shelters and Family Services' Street Outreach program. Street Outreach recently moved into a new building just outside downtown (402 St. Francis Drive), where it serves homeless and runaway youth.
SFR: What is the basis of the Street Outreach program?
LL: We’re under the umbrella of Youth Shelters, but we’re a day program, a drop-in center. We provide emergency services for homeless youth under the age of 22; we provide food, clothes, camping gear, hiking supplies and stuff like that, as well as case management on issues of education, housing, employment and help with legal documents. Anyone can come by at any time during the hours we’re open, 11 am to 6 pm.
What does Santa Fe’s youth homelessness look like?
Homelessness is definitely a spectrum. A lot of our youth really defy the common categorizations of ‘homeless.’ For example, our youth are incredibly meticulous about what clothes they grab from here. Odds are, you would never know that any one of our youth is homeless. The majority of youth that are homeless are just normal-looking kids that are just trying to fit in and be accepted and [are] dealing with all those kinds of things that we go through when we’re younger; they don’t want to stand out in any sort of way.
How and why do kids become homeless?
When asking why, it’s one of those times where the trust aspect really comes into play. There are a lot of youth that we’re working with where, for the first three months that we know them, we only know they hate their stepdad and they never want to talk to him again. But there’s always a deeper story underneath there about what really happened. I mean, I got into a lot of fights with my parents, but there’s gotta be something pretty bad that happens that makes kids feel like they can’t go home. There are a lot of loose ends in peoples’ lives that don’t necessarily make sense.
You guys must see a pretty big cross section of family and living situations here.
Yeah, we do have the kids from the Plaza with the backpacks who are camping out in the arroyo, but we also have that local Santa Fe kid who goes home and all that’s in their fridge is a bunch of beer. We provide food and clothes and support for them. We have clients who are staying in hotel rooms. A lot of our clients are couch-surfing. Our kids are very resourceful. They’re able to stay at other peoples’ apartments or at a friend’s house from school.
Many would say, in these kids’ situations, that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
That’s a really important point, and it’s something that I’ve grappled with. With youth, especially if they’re under the age of 18, they’re really bound to their parents. And if their parents are not in the place where they can be supporting their kids, then the youth could end up homeless. So it’s hard to prevent those types of situations because it’s not necessarily under the youths’ control.
What does Youth Shelters do to try to avoid youth homelessness altogether?
The big things that we point to are having an adult in a kid’s life. One stable adult really makes a difference. That’s also what this program provides; it provides a stable person who will always be here. We’re here every day…and the kids know they can show up and that we’ll be open to talking to them. Having that adult that a youth knows that they can trust, that there’s no judgment, is often the first line of defense before somebody hits the street.
So you guys are kind of stand-ins for absent parents?
Well, we’re not all parent-haters here. We do end up providing kids with bus tickets back to their homes or they work on reunification with a counselor. Our counseling center is also a place where families can access mediation, before it gets so bad that a youth is asked to leave or they leave on their own.
I know you have a traditional homeless shelter for the kids, but what other options do they have?
We also have a Transitional Living Program where youths ages 16 to 21 can stay for up to 18 months. It’s more of an apartment structure, much more independent living. A lot of the youth we see are really resilient, creative kids who have some really amazing survival skills that beg for independent living. They just want to take care of themselves.
The Street Outreach program wasn’t always here on St. Francis Drive. What has happened lately?
The old center on Guadalupe Street closed because of lost funding. The mayor and the City of Santa Fe provided us a great space at the back of the Fort Marcy Complex where we were able to serve youth for the last couple years. Now we’re in this great home, which, in many respects, is a lot better than anywhere we’ve been before.
Do you see kids end up in stable situations very often?
We definitely have success stories. We had a young woman whose friend was mentally ill and homeless, and the young lady was trying to support her friend and help her on the street. Then she got scabies, their tent had icicles hanging off it when they woke up in the morning, stuff like that. After a month and a half she told us, ‘I don’t know how people do it. I want to go home and go to school!’ So we got her a bus ticket home. Some youths think that homeless life is exciting and interesting, but it’s a damn hard life. She realized that home was a better and safer place to be. We called and made sure it was a safe place, then we sent her home.