Elizabeth*, 16, resented having to look after her younger siblings while her mother worked two jobs and struggled as a single mother with three small children. One day, Elizabeth refused and her mother snapped, and Elizabeth ran away. She ended up at a safe house at the YMCA Safe Place Services—a basic center and Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) grantee in Louisville, Kentucky—which she had learned about in her high school.
"We called Mom right away," says Dennis Enix, executive director of YMCA Safe Place Services. "It was a wake-up call to both of them that they were both suppressing a lot of their feelings and holding on to a ton of anger and frustration."
During a respite process that lasted 10 days, Elizabeth stayed at the YMCA and she and her mom were able to open up and talk about their relationship. With mediation by staff, Mom and Elizabeth developed a written plan on what they needed from each other that they could both agree upon.
But staff at the YMCA didn't stop there. They continued to follow up with the family through phone conversations and meetings for a year. Now, Elizabeth regularly comes to their drop-in program and participates on the youth advisory board. Mom has spoken to other parents about how the program has helped her.
FYSB has three programs to benefit runaway and homeless youth—the Basic Center Program (BCP), Transitional Living Program (TLP), and Street Outreach Program (SOP). BCPs and TLPs are programs that offer temporary shelter. Most BCPs can provide 15 days of shelter, food, clothing, counseling, and referrals for health care for up to 20 youth through 18 years of age. TLPs provide longer term residential services to homeless youth ages 16–21—usually up to 18 months, and an additional 180 days is allowed for youth less than 18 years old. TLPs are designed to help youth who are homeless make a successful transition to self-sufficient living.
FYSB standards require each grantee to have an aftercare program that may consist of directing youth to other community-based housing or government assistance services, and providing counseling before they exit the temporary shelter program. Many programs go one step further and maintain contact with youth long after they have "graduated."
Keeping in touch with youth is increasingly a priority for service providers. With fluctuations in the job market, and with the housing boom causing affordable housing to become scarce, young people are finding it harder than ever to transition to successful independent living.
Most FYSB grantees agree that aftercare planning should begin while the youth is still in care. But aftercare can take many forms. Aftercare at shelter discharge—for example, when the youth is leaving a short-term basic center—may include care such as referring youth to affordable housing services, to ongoing counseling, and to other agencies and community services.
Aftercare at final disposition—when the youth has graduated from basic center or transitional living programs—could include things such as client and family evaluations, referrals to other agencies and community services, and followup procedures. Service providers agree that services can vary depending on the length of time the youth has been sheltered, the resources the provider has, and other factors, including the cost of living in the area.
"Some people may think when we talk about aftercare we are talking about a scheduled series of appointments for the next 5 months—follow up visits, treatment—but it can also be a counseling session on the day the youth decides to leave or graduates," says Stan Chappell, director of evaluation and research for FYSB. "It could be followup contact with their parents if they return to their home. If a youth decides to leave before counseling and other interventions have been successfully completed, it could also be just saying, 'Okay, let's see where you're going and how to stay safe, and by the way, here's a sandwich and a fare card.'"
Some FYSB grantees at the basic center programs say that they struggle with aftercare because they only have a short period of time to connect with youth. Providers say that having a substantive relationship with youth is essential to staying in touch with them. Staff retention is also important to grantees because if youth return several years later, they will want to connect with the staff member they knew when they were in the program. Lifeworks, a FYSB grantee in Austin, Texas, has a basic center, a street outreach program, and a transitional living component, and staff rotate throughout all three so that youth get to know all of the staff members.
Many FYSB grantees have developed innovative approaches to stay in touch with youth. Some approaches have included having youth develop their own long-term plans, matching youth with life coaches who will provide them support for as long as they need it, and developing creative ways to tackle the problem of finding affordable housing.
Grantees realize that like most young people, youth that successfully complete their programs will continue to struggle with their transition to adulthood. That's why staying in touch with youth, even after they have left the system, has increasingly become a top priority for youth workers.