During Women's History Month this March, the National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families focuses on the experiences and challenges faced by girls and young women who are experiencing housing instability or contemplating running away. We spoke with the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) Program grantee, PREVAIL (formerly the Women’s Center-Youth & Family Services), about its approach to working with all youth (including males and transgender youth) who have experienced homelessness, with a focus on its work with girls and young women. PREVAIL, an acronym for Pioneering Restoration and Elevating Voices for Advocacy, Idealism and Leadership, is located in Stockton, California, approximately 65 miles east of San Francisco in California's Central Valley. They provide shelter and services for youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness and victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. PREVAIL was formed by a 2012 merger of two local nonprofits: Family and Youth Services, founded in 1969 to help at-risk youth, and the Women's Center, founded by six women in 1976 to address domestic violence.
PREVAIL receives funding under RHY Program grants: Basic Center Program (BCP), Transitional Living Program (TLP), and Street Outreach Program (SOP). Both BCP and TLP have been funded since the 1990s. BCP funding supports Safe House, a 21-day shelter for young people aged 12 to 17. TLP funding supports Opportunity House, a longer-term shelter for older youth, ages 18 to 21 years, for up to 18 months, as well as emancipated 16- and 17-year-old youth.
Opportunity House also provides emergency, 30-day shelter for youth ages 22 to 25, making it the only emergency shelter for this age group in the county. About 37 percent of BCP and TLP youth served are African American and 30 percent are Hispanic or Latino; the other youth are white or of other ethnicities. About 60 percent of the youth are girls or young women. Collectively, BCP and TLP programs serve 115 youth.
Amy Powers, Program Director for Youth Services and Clinical Supervisor, reports that the BCP and TLP shelters closely align with the RHY Program's four core outcomes: permanent connections, safe and stable housing, education and employment, and social and emotional well-being. Within the four outcomes framework, clients work individually with case managers to determine their own goals and work towards achieving them.
The SOP program, initially funded in 2022, identifies and connects youth living on the street to supportive resources and also supports a drop-in center that provides daytime gateway services, including showers, laundry machines, hot meals, and telephone and computer connections. PREVAIL serves youth in the city and surrounding rural, agricultural areas of the Central Valley. The SOP staff tries to reach out across all of these settings. Part of this work includes understanding where youth can be reached, since as Elizabeth Sanchez, Program Manager for Community Engagement/Outreach points out, youth who are experiencing homelessness are often trying to stay under the radar.
Nykiah Cornish, Youth Coordinator and former PREVAIL client, uses her lived experience to understand and connect with clients more directly. In addition to dealing with stable housing and employment concerns, Cornish says, "at times, clients feel defeated because they're homeless, and they're at the lowest of where they've ever been. And when they're meeting with the clinicians and the staff, clients begin seeing that they have a team that supports them. I start to see their self-esteem, self-confidence, independence, motivation, and pride grow in themselves again. That's one thing I always love to see."
Powers calls Cornish one of the best success stories of her career. PREVAIL seeks to include staff with training and lived experiences. Such experience "is a huge asset," says Sanchez, "because you can know all you know, but you need someone who is professional, but can speak from the heart" and who also models what is possible for PREVAIL clients. PREVAIL staff includes women at every level, helping to show girls and young women what they can achieve. "All of our employees receive a full day of training on gender equality, inclusion, and diversity, that encompasses women's rights," says Sanchez, noting that PREVAIL also honors distinguished women in the local community each year in March during Women's History Month, a tradition that began last year.
PREVAIL also focuses on identifying and combating human trafficking for all of the youth it serves. All staff are trained in identifying signs of human trafficking, with a subset also being certified as trainers for a human trafficking course called "Ending the Game." Natali Lopez, Program Coordinator for Youth Shelters, notes that for youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness, human trafficking may be "survival sex," meant to obtain the basic requirements of daily life. PREVAIL also offers human trafficking training to local businesses, including how to identify signs of trafficking and what to do if encountered.
Powers says that the girls and young women served by PREVAIL often present with self-esteem and parenting issues. "Many young women I've worked with have self-esteem and co-dependency issues resulting from understanding their worth through external sources. But the good thing is that with therapy and processing and restructuring their thinking, girls and young women can kind of rewire their brains and find a new approach going forward." For any parenting youth, she says, "When you have a child, you have to make sure they have their vaccines, appointments, clothes, and food and that they're healthy and safe. Now you're taking care of two lives and you're still learning how to take care of yourself."
In working with youth at PREVAIL, Lopez likes to emphasize communication and consistency to help girls and young women build their ability to trust others again. Lopez adds that providers should also attempt to ensure that youth see the same staff members on a regular basis to help reinforce trust and bonding. “Our clients haven't had that consistency in a while, whether they were in foster care, left home, or were sleeping in a park.”
PREVAIL staff leverages their relationships with organizations that youth experiencing homelessness are likely to encounter, including school districts, law enforcement, the juvenile system, and healthcare providers, to help keep youth from slipping through the cracks. For example, Sanchez describes a situation in which a school expelled a student for behavioral issues and found that he was living in a public park. The school contacted PREVAIL to alert them to the situation, without sharing personal information about the student, and a teacher texted him to let him know that PREVAIL would be reaching out, if he wanted to connect. The student responded by reaching out to PREVAIL and stayed a few days at Safe House.
PREVAIL works closely with volunteers from the United Education Institute (UEI) College in Stockton, which is a vocational school and career college. PREVAIL also works with the Greater Valley Conservation Corps, which provides job opportunities while allowing people to finish their high school diplomas. The Links, Inc, a national organization of prominent Black women, has a chapter in Stockton that has been very supportive of PREVAIL.
Like most organizations supporting youth experiencing homelessness, PREVAIL encountered challenges in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. They remained available, although some services, such as the home visitation service, became primarily virtual. In order to maintain social distancing, there was a lower limit on the number of youth served at the drop-in shelter and availability of shelter rooms at any one time, leading to shorter stays for each group. Fortunately, the organization never shut its doors and continued to serve youth.
Since then, Cornish has noticed a revival of good spirits among their clients, noting that it took some time for youth served by PREVAIL to recover from the anxiety and isolation they experienced at the height of the pandemic.
When asked about some of the strongest lessons learned, or principles and practices that they have found important in supporting youth experiencing homelessness, Sanchez identifies four strategies: First, don't judge. Second, don't take anything personally. Third, never give up on youth. And fourth, meet them [youth] where they are. For Cornish, the two keys are trauma-informed care and cultural competency, which she says, "make all the difference." She notes, "Having staff who are properly trained in trauma-informed care minimizes the chance of improperly assessing youth as being disrespectful, lazy, or manipulative, rather than as having a lack of motivation or being outspoken. A lot of the time, youth of color are misunderstood, and often many people who aren't trained in identifying trauma assess their behavior as drama instead of trauma. Trauma-informed care encourages staff to approach clients with as much compassion and understanding as you can." All of the PREVAIL staff receives training in trauma-informed care, including the SOP team, the youth services team, and the shelter team. In addition, Lopez says, "Our CEO always says to give some form of grace, not only to ourselves, but also to our youth and partners."