This July was Disability Pride Month, which observed the 1990 enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is landmark legislation that extended civil rights protections to persons living with disabilities and assured that all Americans were provided the opportunity to benefit from their talents. President Joseph Biden states, “Disability pride is about every American’s equal right to be recognized for who they are. It’s about recognizing a disability isn’t something broken to be fixed. For millions of Americans, their disability is a source of identity and power.” 
Young people who are experiencing housing instability and living with mental or physical disabilities face unique challenges depending on their disability, such as access to buildings for those in wheelchairs, and access to the internet for the visually impaired. Research indicates that homelessness presents both physical and psychological disadvantages for youth in school settings. The intersection of disability and homelessness for youth as presented in data from the National School Boards Association in the 2016-17 school year indicated that approximately 18 percent of students were living with a disability. Moreover, between 2017 and 2019, the number of students living with disabilities who were also homeless increased by nearly 20,000. Inspired by Disability Pride Month and its celebration of those with disabilities, the National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families (NCHYF) recently spoke with the leadership of the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) Program grantee, Safe Harbor Center (SHC), to learn more about how they support their clients living with disabilities. Founded in 1991, SHC is located in Brunswick, Georgia, and serves the entire coastal Georgia region, from south of Savannah to Georgia's border with Florida.
"Safe Harbor Center provides services that promote security and stability for at-risk families, children, and individuals," says CEO Leslie Hartman. The center's services include programs for youth who are at risk of experiencing homelessness, one of which is the STRIVE Transitional Living Program (TLP). The STRIVE TLP supports young women, ages 17 to 22, living with intellectual disabilities. Reflecting the region's geography, about a third of the youth are from urban areas, and about two-thirds are from rural areas. SHC receives RHY program grants for its Basic Center Program (BCP), Street Outreach Program (SOP), and the STRIVE TLP.
The BCP grant includes Zach's Place, which has received RHY funding for 31 years. Because the community has no family shelters, children and teens from families experiencing homelessness may also be housed at Zach's Place, while their parents are placed at the Salvation Army adult emergency shelter. Zach's Place is an emergency shelter that provides care and services for up to 21 days for youth experiencing homelessness from birth to age 17 and serves about 37 youth a year. Approximately 70 percent of the youth at Zach's Place are African American, 20 percent are white, and 10 percent are Latinx.
SHC’s SOP, Street Beat, has been funded for about five years and conducts street outreach throughout coastal Georgia. It served 55 youth participants in 2022. Street Beat workers distribute hygiene and food kits, church-supplied nutrition packs, and information about SHC's services. Also, up to three days a week, they provide round-trip transport services for youth to and from a daytime drop-in center at SHC. At the drop-in center, youth can receive care, counseling, hot meals, job application assistance, and more. About 75 percent of Street Beat's clients are African American, and 22 percent are white.
The STRIVE TLP has been in operation for just over five years. In 2022, the program, which had been a traditional TLP, was reorganized to provide specific assistance to young women living with intellectual disabilities. STRIVE TLP is a residential program providing support for up to 18 months and assists clients in developing life skills and achieving educational and career goals. Since specific intellectual disabilities vary among individuals, the program tailors its services to each client. Laura Ridings is the Program Director of STRIVE Transitional Living Services, which includes STRIVE TLP and two other STRIVE programs. All STRIVE programs aim to build self-sufficiency so that youth may eventually live independently. Life skills assessment tools are used to create an inventory that identifies the client’s most critical life skills focus areas. STRIVE TLP serves up to six young women each grant year; however, throughout the year, clients may leave and join, increasing the total number of those served. In 2022, the program served eight young women, seven of whom were African American, and one was Latina.
The goal of STRIVE TLP's disability programming is self-determination. Ridings says, "Self-determination includes being able to advocate for yourself, regulate your emotions, and communicate effectively." Ridings adds that teaching self-determination skills to youth living with intellectual disabilities helps them to set their own direction more effectively.
STRIVE TLP includes a “Goals Group” to help its residents, whose disabilities may make it more difficult to focus on their goals. This group meets frequently, sometimes up to once a day, to help these youth remain focused on their goals. SHC staff help Goals Group participants break down big goals into smaller, more manageable ones. This allows youth to achieve goals quicker (increasing their sense of accomplishment), instead of waiting a longer period of time to achieve larger goals, risking youth lapsing into inaction.
One STRIVE TLP client is a recent high school graduate working a full-time job for an outside employer and a part-time job for the SHC’s Street Beat outreach program. She explains how the Goals Group helps her with self-determination. "I want to make a difference. Right now, I'm trying to study, so I can go to college. So, each morning, in the Goals Group, I talk about what my goals are, and on this day or this week, what I need to do to work toward achieving my goals." One of her current goals is to get a driver's license. "I have a problem with transportation," she says. "I can't get to school and other places sometimes. So, if I get a driver's license, I will not have to wait for someone to pick me up."
In addition to the Goals Group, STRIVE TLP has a Coping Skills Group. This group is run similarly to a group therapy session or support group, with a focus on teaching life-affirming coping skills. Ridings says, “Our therapist will model the coping skill and talk about scenarios where the skill could be used. They then have the clients practice the skill. These skills are consistently revisited to reinforce their correct use among the clients."
Setting boundaries, even among friends and family members, is an essential coping skill to achieve self-determination for youth living with intellectual disabilities, especially if they are inherently kind. "It's a conversation we have with all of our youth," says Ridings, "but there are even more emotional and attachment issues for youth living with disabilities. Family members will take advantage of these youth because they know the youth is a nice, kind person and is not going to say no. So, the youth has to learn the ability to say no and to set those boundaries.”
Many times, youth from the program apply for services and get denied, because, on paper, their mental health needs are stronger than their disability needs. SHC supports these youth by providing specific documentation and assessments that demonstrate the impact of living with a disability, thereby improving the youth’s chances of being eligible to receive state services.
STRIVE TLP has an Aftercare Specialist who coordinates services offered by the entire staff and connects the former client with therapists and groups once they complete the TLP program. All STRIVE TLP participants are introduced to the Aftercare Specialist as soon as they become residents, so that the Specialist will be a familiar face when the youth completes the TLP program. SHC has found that at the completion of the STRIVE TLP, most clients choose to participate in aftercare, which lasts for a minimum of nine months and up to 18 months.
In addition to working directly with clients, the STRIVE TLP program builds relationships with local employers to provide supported employment to their clients. It's important for the TLP team to find local employers who have the ability and resources to accommodate youth with intellectual disabilities, says Ridings, "The youth are very capable of job training, yet they have some needs that, if not understood, could disrupt their employability."
After over three decades of operation, SHC relies on a deep network of community partners. The state's Division of Family and Children's Services (DFCS) refers young women to STRIVE TLP. Youth experiencing homelessness may also self-refer or be referred by others to STRIVE TLP. Other organizations that work with SHC include county school systems, local churches, Gateway Behavioral Health (a local mental health provider), and Coastal Georgia Community Action Authority. "We have corporate volunteers because we are a tourist destination," says Hartman. “We also have a local company with employees who interact with our kids and have events." National Honor Society high school students volunteer at the center, and church groups supply holiday meals.
Like other organizations caring for youth, SHC confronted many challenges due to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their TLP, which during the pandemic had not yet refocused on supporting youth living with intellectual disabilities, stayed open during the height of the pandemic and never closed. Street Beat, the street outreach program, did not work in-person but continued providing services by using virtual programming. Their BCP, Zach's Place, received no referrals during the most intense phase of the pandemic. The drop-in center continued its work by leaving supplies on porches instead of having them available for pick up at the drop-in center.
When asked for her advice about working with youth living with intellectual disabilities, Ridings has two suggestions. First, take a complete inventory of local and regional resources for these youth, including those experiencing homelessness, to fully understand the availability of resources, including gaps in resources. When sharing the inventory with youth living with intellectual disabilities, avoid overwhelming the youth by introducing this information on an as-needed basis. Second, she says, always build disability programming on a foundation of self-determination. Ridings strongly advocates for programming that emphasizes teaching independent living and self-advocacy skills for youth living with disabilities. “Our goal," she says, "is to help our clients become independent and to advocate for themselves and really become their own people."