Groups converge in advance of summer’s street youth activity

By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer

Service providers for homeless youths are making an unprecedented effort to prepare for the summer influx of homeless youth and young adults.

On April 14, the Homeless Youth Oversight Committee, a stakeholder group overseeing Multnomah County’s homeless youth services and programs, met to discuss strategies that will be implemented by the summertime to engage the population.

The group is trying to “be very solution focused,” says Mary Li, Multnomah County’s community services manager.

To date, two initiatives have emerged from the group. Portland Police Lt. Sara Westbrook, a member of the committee, is spearheading the resurrection of an informal program of the Police Bureau that assigned two Central Precinct officers to engage with homeless youth and point them toward services. Westbrook says the program was eliminated a few years ago because of funding cuts.

The second initiative is being spearheaded by homeless youth using the services of Outside In, a homeless youth service agency. According to executive director Kathy Oliver, a small group of homeless youth have started an organization they are calling Youth Action.

The group’s purpose is to give more voice to homeless youth in an effort to draw distinctions between homeless youth seeking services and those who are not and engage in problematic behavior. The members will be recording interviews with homeless youth to tell their stories.

The effort to develop strategies to proactively deal with the influx of homeless youth began as a result of the increasing numbers of homeless youth traveling to and staying in Portland during the summer months in the last four years. Oliver says the numbers of youth accessing Outside In’s day services has increased in the last year by 26 percent.

The most important effect to emerge from the Homeless Youth Oversight Committee’s effort is in changing the way homeless youth are perceived and talked about.

Members of the business community have said the youth intimidate and frighten away potential business and negatively affect the health of downtown Portland. Megan Doern, the Portland Business Alliance’s spokeswoman, did not return a call for comment before press time.

Kat, 22, frequently sits on the curb near Pioneer Courthouse in downtown Portland with her black Labrador, Cookie, and panhandles. She says she has been traveling “on and off” throughout the country for the last nine years. Portland is a home base for her, and she says she has seen a definite difference during the summer time in terms of the kind of youth that are in Portland. They are typically under the age of 18, she says, and aren’t homeless.

“They just try to see what it’s like to be homeless,” Kat says. “I don’t really like it because they ruin it for kids who are homeless and can’t help but be homeless.”

Li says that advocates and service providers are no longer using the term “road warriors” to describe the youth. Ken Cowdery, the executive director of the youth agency New Avenues for Youth, calls the name an “unfortunate term.” “Everyone gets lumped into that, whether they’re youths or young adults. It catches too many people,” he says.

Li also says the committee is beginning to think of those coming to Portland during the summer are essentially tourists. Li says they should be treated as such. “I don’t think anyone is concerned with youth in general, or travelers. It doesn’t matter if they live here or they don’t,” Westbrook says.

There is also a recognition, Li says, that not all the people who come to Portland during the summer are youth. Many, she says, are in their mid-twenties or older.

Cowdery says that social-service agencies providing services to young adults — those who have aged out of services at Outside In, Janus, or NAFY — have not yet been involved in the conversations the homeless youth providers are having, although he says it is a “community-wide” conversation.

Recognizing that not all youth are interested in services and “more intent on criminal and inappropriate behaviors,” Li says advocates and service providers support a law enforcement approach with that sector of homeless youth.

Li and others hope the new initatives and strategies will engage homeless youth in services. “We’re not going to get rid of the problem,” she says, but she hopes problems will be diffused.

Homeless youth that Street Roots spoke to are not thrilled about the idea of increased police interaction, even if it is done in an attempt to engage them in services.

In Kat’s experience, police officers have a tendency to be “rude and mean.” “Cops would make homeless youth feel intimidated,” she says.

“I don’t think I’ve met a single kid on the street who will talk to a cop,” says Niki, 25, a traveler from Vancouver, B.C. When asked what the program ought to be replaced with, she said “anyone else” should do the street outreach, and thought an increase in social and outreach workers would help.

“I can understand that response,” Cowdery says. “It can’t be seen as punitive.

Photo by Amanda Waldroupe.

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