Richmond youth who have faced homelessness and housing instability use research and advocacy to help others in similar situations
Organizer Alex Wagaman, a VCU School of Social Work professor, says the Advocates for Richmond Youth is giving young people a platform for their voices and is working to eliminate youth homelessness.
By Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs
Dmitri Blair, a 16-year-old junior at Richmond’s Armstrong High School, began experiencing homelessness and housing instability the summer before he entered the fifth grade when he, his mother, sister, brother and stepfather found themselves living in a local shelter.
“I think I was 11 at the time,” Blair said. “Then I was in a hotel for most of middle school and beginning of high school. Just recently, we’re getting housing and it’s starting to get a little better.”
As a young person dealing with uncertainty over housing, Blair said it was difficult to understand how to navigate the social services system and how to find, ask for, or even be aware of, resources that might be available to help.
Now, Blair — along with a group of other Richmond young people who have dealt with homelessness and unstable housing called the Advocates for Richmond Youth — is working to improve the support of young people in similar situations.
“Housing instability made me see everything around me on a different scale, a much broader horizon,” Blair said. “It made me want to help out the community and help those who were experiencing the same things as me. It made me want to be a part of something bigger.”
Last Saturday, Blair and other members of the Advocates for Richmond Youth held a “pop-up, drop-in center” at Side By Side, a space in Richmond for LGBTQ+ youth, that offered free food, clothing, hygiene items, computer access for job searches, and even legal assistance to any 14-to-24-year-olds experiencing homelessness or housing instability or who just need help getting back on their feet.
“This is a place where young people can go to just generally get help or support and get their basic needs met,” said Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University, and a convener, supporter and facilitator of the Advocates for Richmond Youth. “It’s about getting youth connected to the resources that they need.”
Dot Reid, owner of Refuge for Men barbershop, gave free haircuts. Organizations such as Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, the Virginia Anti-Violence Project and Project LIFEwere on hand to provide resources and consultations. A chill space upstairs gave visitors a chance to just hang out and play games. A housing attorney answered questions about landlord/tenant issues. A medical team conducted HIV testing in a back room.
Participatory action research
According to the most recent statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 549,928 people who were homeless on a given night in January 2016, of which 35,686 were unaccompanied homeless youth and 194,716 were people in families.
Last year, at the Advocates for Richmond Youth’s first pop-up, drop-in center, held at the University of Richmond’s downtown campus, the group conducted a count and survey of youth who came in seeking services. This year, the group collected data to better understand the experiences of high schoolers who are experiencing homelessness or unstable housing, with an eye toward finding ways to better support them.
“We research ourselves, we research everyone around us.”
Part of the Advocates’ mission is to serve as a participatory action research team, in which the members — all of whom have personal experience with homelessness or unstable housing — conduct research on their and others’ experiences with homelessness and unstable housing, and use that research to inform their advocacy for services and policies that better meet the needs of homeless youth in Richmond.
“We research ourselves, we research everyone around us,” said Jae Lange, 23, who joined the Advocates two years ago, having been embraced by the group after going through a period of unstable housing. “And we use logistics and statistics to pull all that information together to address youth homelessness in our community.”
Elaine Williams, a senior majoring in social work at VCU, joined the Advocates for Richmond Youth during her first semester at VCU. Williams, who experienced unstable housing in her childhood, and homelessness as an adolescent, said her past inspired her to want to make things better for other young people.
“When we look at the definition of homelessness, it doesn’t really fit the experience of youth homelessness,” Williams said. “You have a lot of barriers there. What we, as an advocacy group for youth, we try to break down those barriers, to try to bridge the gap between service providers and youth. We say, ‘Hey, this is their situation, and they need help.’”
“A lot of times youth are turned away from services because those services are not youth-affirming,” Williams added. “They don’t know how to interact with youth. As an advocacy group of youth, we try to build a culture around, ‘This is how to interact with youth [seeking help from] your department or in your community.’ Youth are not the problem. They are the solution.”
As part of the Advocates, Williams has been researching the experiences and service needs of Richmond-area youth who are facing homelessness and housing instability but who do not meet the criteria of the traditional definition of homelessness. The results of her research, titled “Exploring the experiences and service needs of non-traditional homeless youth in Richmond,” will be presented as part of the upcoming School of Social Work Research Symposium at VCU.
Recently, Lange said, the Advocates has been conducting interviews with people who work in the region’s schools about the perception of homelessness and the awareness of available resources for youth. The Advocates has also held training workshops in Richmond, as well as at a national conference in California.
In March, the group convened stakeholders from across the Richmond region as part of an effort to build a coalition of groups interested in better supporting youth facing homelessness.
“The Advocates have built up a lot of support over the last couple of years so people who haven’t necessarily sat down at the table together to talk about housing instability and young people are coming together to talk about how they can work together and build a more coordinated response,” Wagaman said.
Yet another project involves launching a partnership with local legal organizations to address issues related to housing rights, tenant rights and tenant education, and providing legal support for young people.
“Many people who have their first or second apartments are dealing with legal issues of not knowing their rights, of being pushed out before going through a formal eviction process, or not knowing how to deal with increases in rent and those sorts of things,” Wagaman said. “We’re working with Legal Aid Justice Center and other community partners to figure out how to build an effort where we would collaboratively train attorneys and young people to work in supporting youth in our city to uphold their rights.”
Breaking down barriers
Tiffany Haynes, 23, joined the Advocates when it launched in 2014, as she was aging out of foster care and facing an unstable housing situation. At the pop-up, drop-in center at Side By Side, Haynes welcomed young people to the event and directed them to various services.
“We hope that we can connect [homeless youth] with resources that are available to help them,” she said. “We hope that we are creating an environment where they can feel comfortable and not being defined by their situation. And we hope that we’re giving them a sense of hope and encouragement, and just to know that there are people out there who want to help them.”
Haynes, who now lives in the East End with her 6-year-old son, said she is passionate about the Advocates’ work to break down barriers and raise visibility around youth homelessness and unstable housing.
“We’ve done a lot. It makes me excited that this diverse group of people, all of whom have experienced homelessness or unstable housing, can come together to tackle the issue and have so much enthusiasm about helping people in that same situation,” she said.
Another member is Aiyanna Horton, 25, who faced unstable housing after being kicked out of her home because she is a trans woman.
“We pretty much started this because we all experienced unstable housing or homelessness,” she said. “We didn’t have the resources that we needed, or we didn’t know what resources were out there. So we were like, ‘OK, let’s come up with something that can help youth and let them know about what resources are available to them.’”
“Not knowing the resources that are available to youth can come down to you having to do what you have to do to survive in the streets, including things that you really don’t want to do,” she added.
Yet another member, Jameel Thomas, 23, who works as a bartender, joined a few months ago. Thomas lives in an apartment now, but previously Thomas and Lange struggled together with unstable housing, living in hotels and shelters over the years.
“Jae found out about the group and joined, and then I started seeing what she was doing in the community — like these drop-in centers and training people on what to do on how to treat people in our situation — so I was like, I want to be a part of that also,” Thomas said. “I dealt with [homelessness and uncertain housing] myself, so how could I not want to help people who’ve found themselves in the same situation?”
Serving unique needs of homeless youth
Rae Obejero, an alumnus of the VCU School of Social Work, helped start Advocates for Richmond Youth as a BSW student and research assistant working with Wagaman. Obejero is now the Transgender Program Coordinator at Equality Virginia, a statewide education, advocacy and outreach LGBTQIA organization.
Prior to the launch of the Advocates, Obejero interned at Homeless Point of Entry, which serves as a starting point for Richmond-area people who are homeless and in need of shelter, case management or other services.
“During that time, I must have seen hundreds of young adults who were my age — and much younger — attempt to navigate our homeless service system,” Obejero said. “I recognized where the gaps were and all of the shortcomings that our existing homeless service system had for young adults. Young adults have much different housing needs than the older chronically homeless population that is stereotypically what folks think of when they imagine someone that experiences homelessness.”
For example, Obejero said, many of the young people dealing with homelessness were emerging from the foster care system or were LGBTQIA+.
“Both had come seeking services and shelter after escaping violence from their parents and family members,” Obejero said. “As a direct service provider, I recognized that our current system isn’t equipped to meet the needs of youth in unstable housing and that our current system isn’t equipped to meet the needs of queer and/or transgender people in unstable housing. When queer and/or transgender youth attempted to access basic needs, they were met with discrimination, harassment, and violence because of these dual marginalized identities.”
Since its launch, Obejero said, the Advocates has helped Richmond recognize that services should be tailored to meet the unique needs of homeless youth.
“Homeless service providers now recognize that they need to undergo best practices training to work with this population,” Obejero said. “The entire landscape of youth homelessness has shifted in Richmond — and I believe it is because of Advocates. It’s been an honor to watch the advocates grow from shy, quiet young people to passionate, strong national speakers. They are truly the ones who spearhead this work and make it possible.”