Q&A with Barbara St. Thomas, Board President of Safe Place for Youth (Part 1)

As mentioned in our blog discussing the homeless crisis in LA we want to do our part to work towards a solution. We are proud to announce our partnership with Safe Place for Youth, and want to bring awareness to everything they do for the community.  What better way to learn more about S.P.Y than right from the source, Barbara St. Thomas, the Board President of S.P.Y? She is a delight and we are so thankful for her wonderful responses.
  1. How did you first become involved with S.P.Y?
I was looking for a volunteer experience that offered a personal connection and a friend suggested Safe Place for Youth (SPY) to me early in its grassroots growth. In the past six years, I’ve watched SPY grow from 2 to nearly 60 employees, doubling the operating budget each year and most importantly doubling the success stories. Housed young people reach their goals with the arms of family and community wrapped around them.  I value how SPY merges staff and volunteers to create a diverse and supportive community for young people who lack caring connections. SPY exists because young people shouldn’t be left to navigate the precarious chasm between childhood and adulthood alone.
  1. Describe a little bit about S.P.Y.’s members (i.e. age, circumstance, etc.) and how they find out about S.P.Y.’s resources?
The majority of young people that come to our door are between the ages of 18 and 25 and are homeless or housing insecure. Most find us through our extensive outreach program and its respectful and welcoming “boots on the ground” approach, some through “word-of-mouth” and some though an on-line Google search for homeless services. Our “members” have aged out of foster care, been kicked out, or had to get out of circumstances where they were unsafe, unwanted or didn’t feel they belonged. Some are experiencing addiction or mental health issues that cause them to reject support previously offered.
  1. How many members come through your door daily and what programs does S.P.Y. offer to them?
We welcome an average of 100 young people a day, being a hub of hope to over 1,300 individual young people each year. We meet their immediate needs of hunger and hygiene then introduce them to programs that address individual solutions through case management, healing arts, medical, legal, education, employment, and housing assistance.  Basically, we offer the same support provided to housed young adults by their family and community--the tools needed to become independent adults. It is an honor.
  1. What do you find to be the greatest challenge in getting members to walk through S.P.Y.’s doors?
Trust. Prior experiences of neglect, abuse, and rejection make youth suspicious of adults. Many feel safer with their street family than they have ever felt growing up. Housed or un-housed, young people rejects solutions that are pushed on them. They will respond to guidance that comes from a place of mutual respect but it takes time to build those trusting relationships. We are patient.  We see so much potential and truly want the best outcome for every individual journey that walks through our door.
  1. In your opinion, what type of change needs to take place in order to tackle the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles?
Our city’s homeless population is not a single demographic, it is the result of many unique demographics each requiring individualized solutions.
10% of Los Angeles’s homeless population is young adults. It is a hopeful and resilient demographic that requires far less intervention, programmatically and economically than the chronically homeless. It is the best time to leverage the impact of support, as they are not yet that far behind their housed peers.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 55% of 18 to 24 year olds are still living at home. This statistic reflects that independence at these ages is not the norm and certainly far less common than it was decades ago. If over half of our nation’s young adults are living at home how skewed is the statistic when we add in that 30% of foster youth age out as homeless at 18, that over 50% of homeless young adults have been kicked out of their homes and up to 40% have to get out due to neglect and/or abuse?  Why are we expecting a level of independence from homeless young people with lived trauma that over half of their housed peers are not achieving?
As a community we need to provide pathways to success for all our young people, both housed and un-housed. We need to focus on potential, realize how important job skills are and give life skills the same importance as job skills, create a sense of universal community, acknowledge that these are the ages of drug/alcohol exploration but most will not end up addicts, acknowledge that these are the ages of increased emotional volatility but the frontal cortex is not fully developed until the age of 26, and realize that personal success often comes because someone took a chance on a person, not a resume or an address.  Our hearts and resources need to be open to help all of our city’s young adults.
6.         What is your favorite part about working at S.P.Y.?
SPY is a very uplifting place. You cannot help but feel the genuine caring between youth, staff and volunteers when you spend time at our Access Center. Many new volunteers comment on how surprised they are by the gratitude expressed by the young people using our services. I agree and it humbles me. There are days when I am touched by sadness, it is unavoidable, but most days I leave refreshed from spending time with such amazing, promising individuals.
7.              How can others get involved?
There are many ways to support SPY’s mission. We gladly accept the donation of your time, talent and/or financial support. For all the ways, both big and small that we need you, click here.