National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families

Get to Know a Grantee: The Colorado Rural Collaborative

Boy with backpack walking down a country road

The RHY Clearinghouse developed the Get to Know a Grantee questionnaire to illustrate the great variety of youth-serving FYSB grantees, to share their insights on the work that they do, and to inspire collaboration and the sharing of experiences and ideas. We regularly share responses from grantees in the hope that you’ll learn more about the needs of runaway and homeless youth or, if you’re a grantee, that you’ll find some new approaches or ideas to inspire the work you do on behalf of vulnerable youth in your community. Contact us if you’d like to be featured.

The Colorado Rural Collaborative for Runaway and Homeless Youth has served homeless and at-risk youth in rural communities for more than a decade. Currently, the Rural Collaborative is in its second year of its current Basic Center Program (BCP) grant. This RHY program covers a wide geographic region within Colorado’s Balance of State Continuum of Care (CoC) from the Western Slope to Southern Colorado to the Northeast Quadrant of the State. For this edition of Get to Know a Grantee, we spoke with Denise McHugh and Kippi Clausen who co-lead the Rural Collaborative. 

How long have you had a FYSB grant?

The Colorado Rural Collaborative for Runaway and Homeless Youth was established in fall 2008 through the generous support of a five-year FYSB demonstration grant focused on rural youth homelessness called Support Systems for Rural Homeless Youth (SSRHY). SSRHY provided the foundation for the Rural Collaborative’s strong statewide network of regional service sites.

What other sources of funding are essential to your programs?

Foundation dollars and other sources of funding are key to supplementing the Rural Collaborative’s BCP programming, which serves youth up to the age of 18. These funding sources have allowed the Rural Collaborative to expand eligibility for other programming beyond age 18, and expand allowable services forming a coordinated CoC for youth experiencing homelessness in rural Colorado.  For example, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs/Division of Housing recently awarded the Rural Collaborative funding for host homes for BCP youth, as well as permanent supportive housing vouchers for youth ages 18 to 25.

What’s the primary need of homeless youth in your community who live in rural areas?

Faced with a lack of employment opportunities, limited access to behavioral and physical health care, small human/social services departments with limited capacity, and no safe temporary housing, many rural homeless youth are forced to migrate to urban centers where they are often victimized and easy targets for sexual abuse or exploitation. The Rural Collaborative seeks to increase the capacity of rural communities to serve runaway and homeless youth in their home communities where they have a support network, rather than having to seek services in Colorado’s urban centers.

Youth who are homeless in rural communities are often considered “invisible.” They tend to “couch-surf” with friends, neighbors, teachers and coaches, and other family homes. Aside from coach surfing, youth have been found living in horse trailers, barns, cars, garages, camping out in national forests and on federal land, and in abandoned structures not suitable for human habitation. As a result, rural communities tend to be largely unaware of the problem. One of the first steps the Rural Collaborative takes is to engage the community in developing strategies to address youth homelessness in their area.

How are rural young people’s needs different from those of other youth and what barriers do rural homeless youth face?

Colorado is a largely rural state, with 47 of its 64 counties geographically isolated from the state’s major commercial centers. These small, geographically isolated areas face challenges, such as limited employment opportunities, aging housing infrastructure, and few community resources. Rural communities almost always lack adequate public transportation, making it extremely challenging for youth to obtain and maintain employment, attend appointments, and participate in school and/or school activities. The primary complaint of youth living in rural areas is that there is often too little to do and nowhere to go for affordable, social activities.

What have been your most important collaborations with local partners?

The Rural Collaborative partners with public systems of care such as child welfare, behavioral health, and juvenile justice. Coordination with these systems is first and foremost to ensure the broadest support and safety net for rural homeless youth, and to be able to connect them with the appropriate services managed by these systems of care. Prior systems involvement – particularly foster care – is a demonstrated risk factor for youth homelessness. As a result, the Rural Collaborative partners with state and local departments of human services/child welfare, as well as federal and Colorado initiatives focused on youth homelessness such as Pathways to Success (Colorado’s Youth At-Risk of Homelessness (YARH) grant) for youth with current or prior foster care experience, and COACT (Colorado’s SAMSHA-funded system of care) for children and youth with serious mental health issues at risk of out-of-home placement or homelessness.

COACT builds upon Colorado’s Collaborative Management Program (CMP) which is the state’s cross-system approach to serving children, youth, and families with complex needs. CMP provides an infrastructure where funds are braided and in-kind resources shared to address the needs of youth who would benefit from multiple agency involvement.

Finally, we partner with the Balance of State CoC by serving on its Governing Board, and committees, including facilitating the Youth Action Board composed of youth leaders with lived experience.

What sets your organization apart from other similar organizations?

The Rural Collaborative is a Collective Impact Initiative guided by a common agenda for solving rural youth homelessness with a shared measurement system among several agencies that mutually reinforce each other’s activities and engage in continuous communication. Collective Impact provides a framework for bringing people together in a structured way to achieve social change. For more information about Collective Impact see https://www.collectiveimpactforum.org/what-collective-impact.

Back in 2008 when the SSRHY grant was awarded, Colorado thought it would have one or two demonstration sites. However, the rural communities who applied to be a site insisted that they should all be selected based on the rural value of cooperation. Collective Impact theory has provided the Rural Collaborative with a framework and language explaining its operations. Based on the Collective Impact framework, the Rural Collaborative’s innovative structure has increased services to homeless youth in rural Colorado.

The Collective Impact approach adopted by the Rural Collaborative addresses the unique needs of youth experiencing homelessness in several Balance of State CoC regions starting with outreach and then moving to gateway services, case management, safe and stable housing, and follow up/aftercare services that are all linked to promote youth safety, stability, and well-being. It also has allowed for a cost effective and practice-rich model for rural areas. In accordance with the principles of Collective Impact, the Rural Collaborative is staffed by an independent backbone organization (Spark Community and Shiloh House) that consists of program expertise and fund raising, strong fiscal controls and leadership, an independent research and evaluation firm (Center for Policy Research), and local sites and lead agencies that serve runaway and homeless youth.

The Rural Collaborative’s primary housing strategy is host homes. Rural Collaborative case managers are mobile and meet youth where they are located. Case managers also may have drop-in hours at non-stigmatizing community locations that youth frequent. Youth in rural areas are concerned that “everybody knows what’s going on” and so don’t want to be seen meeting, for instance, at human services offices or mental health centers.

What do you wish more people in your community (or the country) understood about youth homelessness, particularly rural youth homelessness?

In these vast rural areas, it may take longer to build capacity and be more costly to serve youth. But the Rural Collaborative works intentionally and diligently to engage rural communities and support their efforts to design locale-specific supports for vulnerable youth. Rural youth deserve access to emergency shelter, housing, and services in their home communities; our role is to help rural communities grow their capacity to serve these youth through a broad network of support.

Standard housing strategies often have to be adjusted to fit rural communities; host home settings are often used, especially as free standing shelters are not as common in rural areas. The Rural Collaborative is a highly active and valuable member of the Balance of State CoC, helping to build a developmentally appropriate coordinated entry system and housing continuum for youth.   

Finally, we operate under the fundamental belief that youth who are homeless regardless of where they live are “naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.”  This belief forms the foundation for all of the Rural Collaborative’s programming.