Homeless youth are often invisible.
According to Rhonda Deskins, workforce development program manager at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, this is because they usually resort to couchsurfing, and aren’t necessarily sleeping on the streets.
“I like to tell people that homelessness doesn’t have a look,” she said. “You’ll find these kids wearing the latest trends, but they don’t know where their next meal is going to come from or where they’re going to be sleeping.”
Sasha Bruce Youthwork is a local nonprofit that dedicates its time and efforts to providing counseling, housing, job training, education, and medical services to at-risk youth and their families in the Washington, DC area.
SBY has helped more than 13,000 young people to reunite with their families and combat homelessness since its founding in 1974. Deskins said that most homeless youth are runaways, victims of trafficking, from broken homes, or have aged out of the foster care system.
Founder and executive director Deborah Shore said that her mother’s position as a social worker turned her on to social justice at a young age. After years of working at an early runaway shelter, she realized that she had to reach out to young people and make sure they were connecting with all available resources.
“I knew it was important to provide a bridge for these kids, but it needed to be a bridge that led somewhere”, she said. Noticing that a lot of focus was placed on services for the chronically homeless, Shore saw the need to work towards a systemic solution. “We need to get there earlier and figure out how to support youth and families to avoid chronic homelessness.”
The newest program at Sasha Bruce is a daytime drop-in center. The facility acts as a safe space with access to laundry machines, showers, food, a computer lab, counseling and medical services, and even workshops and classes that assist in developing the skills necessary for a smooth transition into adulthood. This is particularly helpful for those 18 and up.
“Their biggest struggle is that they are too old for the foster care system, but too young to navigate effectively on their own,” Deskins said.
The center will also become the central intake office for all the Sasha Bruce Youthwork programs. Staff members will conduct assessments on individuals to identify their current situations and determine the best course of action to help stabilize their lives. Shore hopes that the center will become a “one-stop shop” for struggling youth, and a resource through which SBY staff can learn more about their needs and, in turn, be able to create programs that better address those needs.
Sasha Bruce impacts the lives not just of the people who use its programs, but of its employees as well.
“I live for the ‘ah-ha’ moment. That moment when (the kids are) like ‘oh! I really get it’ after you’ve been teaching them for months,” Deskins said. “You see them apply it, and see them get better.”
She fondly recalled a young man she worked with who had a hard time motivating himself. He attributed his shortcomings to a self-diagnosed learning disability. However, after months of one-on-one counseling and guidance, he was able to pass three sections of the GED. “He realized that this disability that he may have doesn’t define him,” Deskins said. “To see his progression is amazing.”
A number of beneficiaries of the SBY programs have returned to become mentors and volunteers. They set an example of what one can accomplish with hard work, guidance and perseverance.
Sasha Bruce exists to empower at-risk youth and supply them with resources to make their lives better.
“We provide an essential lifeline,” Shore said. “Young people are very resourceful and very smart, but the world is a place where we all need a lot of guidance, protection and extra help before you’re really able to launch fully on your own. I feel compelled to keep our doors open because of our essential critical resources that should be basic. Everyone should have a roof over their head, food, and people in their corner who have their best interest at heart.”
If you or a young person you know is struggling with homelessness, call the Sasha Bruce Youthwork 24 hour hotline at 202.547.7777
About the Author: Alessandra “Alex” Lacson is a senior at American University. An island girl at heart, Alex prefers warm weather, but is always down to build a snowman. She’s passionate about LGBTQ rights, feminism and racial equality, and is a huge fan of the Chipotle burrito bowl. Alex is currently working on a capstone project about the attitudes surrounding homelessness in Washington, DC.