I’ve spent the year working as a case manager in a shelter-based program for homeless 18-21 year olds. The setting is chaotic: 60 young men and women, coming straight from the streets, foster care placements, hospitals, juvenile justice centers, and a variety of family arrangements, to live with us for a couple months, looking for a new start, or at least a stepping stone to a more stable life.
The challenges are tremendous. New youth come every day, needing IDs, clothes, healthcare, food, and showers. Youth are quickly expected to seek and obtain employment in order to move into more stable housing. Frustrations run high, money runs low, arguments ensue, old demons surface frequently, and street survival habits die slowly.
As a young staff member, it can be difficult to comprehend the chaos of the many lives that intersect in our building, let alone respond in a helpful, caring, first-do-no-harm manner. We rarely have the luxury of black and white decisions when tackling the complex psychosocial puzzles we face daily. Below are a few memorable statements that I’ve heard that have most shaped my approach to our youth this year.
1.) “Being non-judgmental also means not judging a youth’s decision to return to the street life”
Our organization has a stated mission of treating all youth with absolute respect and a nonjudgmental, unconditionally loving attitude. For months, I thought of this as accepting youth “where they’re at” and not thinking poorly of them as a person for past decisions, trying as hard as possible to keep shame out of the room when discussing a youth’s past mistakes. One of the youth I admire most beat his girlfriend. He’s a good person, but he’s made some regrettable decisions in difficult moments.
However, we all have blind spots to our nonjudgementalness, our ability to accept youth as they are in all situations. In a training several weeks ago, one of our senior directors, a 15-year veteran of helping homeless youth, made the point that being nonjudgemental, also means not judging youth who opt to leave our path for them towards a decent, honest, working life, in favor of returning to the streets, which very possibly means surviving by means of theft, drug dealing, and/or prostitution. We try to talk them out of it, but, in the end, we are to send the message that, even if they make such a decision, we will support them and not think any less of them when they return to us a few months later to try the program again.
2.) “If we let a youth lie to us, it will probably not hurt either of us too much in the long run. However, if we accuse a youth of lying when they are being honest, it could cause irreparable damage”
Lying is an effective survival skill for the street life or residential placement life that many of our youth come from. Staff members in residential programs sometimes subscribe to a concept of not letting a client “get one over on you,” believing that “falling for” a client’s lie makes you a weak or disrespectable adult. Being an optimistic, trusting, probably somewhat naïve, young staff member, I found lie detection as difficult, and seeing youth as liars even more difficult.
The advice quoted above probably guided me through situations on a daily basis. We never need to assume someone is lying, which would be the opposite of “holding youth to high expectations,” a mantra for fostering resilience. To minimize people’s getting away with lying consistently, we can collect as much information as possible, and make decisions somewhat objectively, without assuming we can make decisions about someone’s integrity with our intuition in an effort to protect our pride from having someone “get one over on us”.
3.) “In a line, trauma-informed care is shifting from thinking ‘what’s wrong with this person?’ to ‘what happened to this person?’”
Our organization, like many other human service sites, has attempted to shift toward a trauma-informed approach. It seems that no one really agrees about what “trauma-informed care” means, but everyone agrees that it is important. I think, at its core, it’s a way towards empathy. It’s seeing “difficult behaviors”—poor impulse control, irritability, hypervigilance—as the result of ongoing physiological and neurobiological responses to the incredibly stressful past environments that our youth have navigated successfully, and helping to foster safety and connection as the foundation of any other goals in this world.
The line above seems to explain trauma-informed care succinctly. It shows you how to respond to the big young man, who upon being placed on hold by a welfare office employee, slams the phone down, curses, and storms out of my office. It’s easy to react with “what’s wrong with that dude? We must correct such maladaptive behavior,” but it is more helpful to think to yourself, “what happened to that dude that makes him react that way” and “how can we provide the safety and appropriate redirection to help make a slight, positive shift in his developmental trajectory?”
Tim's Ministry Placement is as Youth Advisor at Covenant House.