The obstacles and challenges of homelessness among African American youth are of grave concern to Open Arms, Inc., in Albany, Georgia. Founded in 1991, Open Arms is the only agency for runaway and homeless youth in Albany, a city of about 70,000 people, according to the 2020 Census. Four of its programs are supported by Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) programs, including the Basic Center Program, which provides emergency shelter, the residential Transitional Living Program (TLP), the Street Outreach Program (SOP), which reaches out to help young people get off the streets, and the Maternity Group Home (MGH), which provides transitional living for pregnant and parenting youth.
Every year, Open Arms serves about 200 non-residential youth and 50 residential youth, of whom about 90 percent are African American. Dr. Fonda Thompson, the Open Arms Executive Director, says that in working with these youth, the agency staff "treats them as if they are our own children, to make sure all of their needs are met." In celebration of Black History Month this February, the RHY Clearinghouse spoke with Dr. Thompson and Rosalynn Fliggins, the Associate Executive Director about their experience supporting African American homeless youth.
According to Dr. Thompson and Fliggins, organizations should be aware of certain cultural considerations when serving African American homeless youth. Based on their past experiences, “African American homeless youth often present with trust issues,” says Dr. Thompson, “requiring time and patience to build relationships.” Many African American families also place a high value on keeping what happens at home private, which may make youth reluctant to talk openly about their experience or even ask for help or food. Families may also have stigmas about taking part in therapy or about LGBTQ youth. Of the African American youth served by Open Arms, Fliggins says that three quarters have been subject to sexual abuse. Many have experiences with violence, gangs, parental substance use, and their own substance use, often involving opioids or marijuana.
Dr. Thompson and Fliggins also stated that it is important to have racial representation among staff that reflects the clients served, to help them feel more comfortable. For African American youth, having staff members and leaders who are African American can provide role models, showing that someone who looks like them can succeed. Additionally, some Open Arms staff were once clients or homeless youth, improving their ability to build a trusting relationship between staff and the youth served by Open Arms.
When working with African American homeless youth, "we work with our local churches within the community," says Dr. Thompson. "For African American youth, that is so key. For so long, that's what African American families stood on, the church." Open Arms also has many other partnerships throughout the community, including Liberty House (a domestic violence shelter), schools, businesses, the United Way, the Salvation Army, the police department, the juvenile court system, the Albany Technical College, and the church-operated Samaritan Clinic, which provides medical care to the uninsured. The agency also receives support from local sororities, fraternities, and other student organizations at Albany State University, an Historically Black College/University (HBCU). Open Arms also works with undergraduate and graduate interns from Albany State who support the program by providing essential services, such as case management, leading group sessions, and program enhancement. Fliggins adds, “We seek interns offering diverse areas of expertise, allowing them to connect with a wide variety of youth. For example, if there is an at-risk youth in our program who is interested in art, we will seek interns with art majors. Our interns also provide our staff with tips on successful social media marketing strategies and fresh ideas for connecting with at-risk youth.“
To identify and encourage homeless youth to engage with the agency, its Street Outreach Program staff conducts outreach on the streets and at schools, parks, hospitals, bus station hubs, and more. Understanding that LGBTQ homeless youth may be more hesitant, outreach workers always make sure to show LGBTQ youth that they will be accepted and helped at Open Arms. The team also has received Human Trafficking training from FYSB and has ways to reach out safely to victims and those at risk of human trafficking to keep youth out of harm's way.
Dr. Thompson expressed the importance of Open Arms supporting educational achievements among the youth they serve. Once youth connect with Open Arms, they are encouraged to graduate from high school and attend technical college or Albany State. Encouragement comes in many forms, including monetary incentives (a youth favorite), additional field trips, nominations for awards and scholarships, and connecting with post-secondary educational opportunities. Open Arms also facilitates opportunities for youth to attend college fairs, meet local professionals working in the youth’s areas of interest, and develop career interest inventories to assist them in narrowing down potential career fields. Fliggins adds, “We like to celebrate their accomplishments, while helping them to continue on a path that combines their personal interests and a potential for long-term success.” In addition to formal education, Open Arms also provides training to youth related to critical life skills. Youth in the TLP learn skills such as finding and maintaining an apartment and finding and keeping a job; those in the MGH program learn parenting skills, too. These accomplishments and others "give me a reason to shout" with joy, says Dr. Thompson.
Albany has a high poverty rate and endured several recent disasters, including two tornadoes in 2017 that were two weeks apart and Hurricane Michael in 2018, followed by COVID-19 in 2020. Fliggins believes that their management of Open Arms during the COVID-19 pandemic allows the agency to maintain its services and programs with minimal changes. By following CDC guidelines, Open Arms has not experienced any mass infection among staff or youth served. This success is due to the agency's COVID protocol and, as Dr. Thompson says, to "the best staff on this side of heaven," who have stayed with Open Arms throughout the pandemic.
Dr. Thompson has been working at Open Arms for 26 years, and Fliggins has been there 21 years; they have worked together in their current roles since 2006. Based on their years of experience, Fliggins has advice to offer others working with African American homeless youth. "As you're making decisions about African American young people, get feedback from them and offer strong messages of hope and resiliency. Challenge racial stereotypes, whether it's your own or theirs. And promote racial healing across the board," she says.