Each night, hundreds of youth in the Omaha metro are homeless. Many of these youth have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused, making it unsafe for them to return home. Many others are facing poor physical and mental health, and substance abuse issues beyond their control. Without proper support and guidance, these vulnerable adolescents cannot succeed independently, and will likely fall into the cycle of homelessness as adults. Thankfully, Youth Emergency Services (Known as YES) exists to help these youth turn their lives around.
YES outreach workers hit the streets of greater Omaha, looking for youth in crisis. They carry backpacks filled with basic needs and emergency supplies and patrol areas where homeless and at-risk youth tend to congregate. Outreach workers are trained to identify a young person in need and to provide immediate information and services.
The YES Emergency Shelter is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week with youth workers, counselors and homeless youth advocates. The shelter is available to youth ages 16 to 20. Youth seeking shelter services are screened to ensure appropriate placement and safety for all the residents. The shelter sees 50 to 60 youth every day.
Mary Fraser Meints, Executive Director of YES and Cindy Goodin, Director of Program Services, were gracious enough to take time out of their busy schedule to sit down with my wife and I to answer some questions for us.
Q: 1 in 5 children are sexually abused before they turn 18 (Many in their own home). Nationally nearly half of all runaways report being sexually and/or physically abused before they left home. How does Omaha compare with the national statistics?
Cindy: In 2013 we participated in the Street Outreach Executive Data Collection Summary. We are pretty much on target with the national survey. The demographics are different, but most of the homeless kids that we see are 18, 19, and 20. As far as abuse, 5% said that they were sexually abused at home, and 25% said that they were physically abused.
Mary: One of the things we want to make sure people understand is that these are not bad kids. These are people who would live at home if they could, but they can’t because of safety issues. Sometimes it’s a family conflict—something going on in the family. Sometimes it’s economic problems, and sometimes it’s mental health or substance abuse by the parents. (And the youth). But we’re finding that mental health issues come onto the youth after they’re homeless—not as much as when they’re at home.
Q: Does YES see a lot of youth aging out of foster care?
Cindy: Yes. We see somewhere between 40-60% of youth who are former foster care kids, depending on the year.
Mary: People say former foster care and they think it’s just the ones who have aged out, but some of them had been in the foster care system and their cases were dismissed before they aged out.
Q: Do you have any programs within YES that help with the mental problems of the youth?
Mary: Yes, we have a therapist at our outreach center that’s there three days a week that offers free therapy. The therapist works for Lutheran Family Services. We’re connected with them so that the youth can use their services. And they don’t have to be certified YES clients to receive their services. Let’s say they stop coming to the Outreach Center and they stopped living in our program; they can still go to Lutheran Family Services. We picked them because they’re our neighbors. They’re in the community and they do good work. It’s nice to keep that neighborhood connection. And once the youth are familiar with them they can continue to see them.
Q: Statistics show that children who are sexually abused suffer from depression, PTSD, and other emotional problems that carry over into adulthood. Recently I read that 1 in 6 teens attempt to commit suicide.
Mary: Just because someone’s been abused does not mean that they have mental health issues or that they’re going to commit suicide. Many, many youth are very resilient and they can bounce back. I saw many young people that I worked with succeed. We see many youth survive and succeed and they are resilient and brave and strong, and we’re just here to help them connect to whatever services they need to be successful. They (the youth) develop the plan, they drive what they do. We don’t say, “Hey, you should do this.” They say what they want to do. Because if someone tells you what to do you’re not going to say, “Oh, I’m gonna do that.” They need to do what their vision is—what their dreams and hopes are.
Q: What do you do abut HIV or if one of the youth comes down with Pneumonia?
Cindy: We have a nurse that comes to our Outreach Center as well as our housing program that comes three days a week. She can figure out what they need and help them get the resource, so we can avoid going to an emergency room, make an appointment at the clinic, things like that. She’s really good at helping young people and taking care of their physical needs. We also work with Charles Drew and One World Adolescence Clinic.
We asked them if they had any great success stories that stand out in their minds that they could share. They recounted Kayla’s story for us:
Four years ago Kayla dropped out of high school in Alabama and focused on raising her two young children. Having no family willing to help her, she was on her own and desperately in need of support. Kayla decided it was time for a change and moved to the Omaha area.
Shortly after relocating, she entered the YES Maternity Group Home and hit the ground running. YES was able to help her re-enroll in school at Blackburn Alternative. She gained part-time employment at Subway and set up day care and VNA services for her children. Kayla’s dream was to join the United States Air Force. After meeting with a recruiter she worked diligently to take care of a previous legal citation from Alabama. She was determined not to let anything stop from achieving her dream.
In February Kayla went to boot camp in Texas. The cool thing about her was that she reached out to one of the staff members and said, “This is really hard, but I’m going to succeed. But would you please have people send me words of encouragement?”
So our staff got little postcards and they wrote notes on them and sent them down to her. We had staff write to her and said, “It’s okay, hang in there. You’re brave, you’re strong, you can do it.” The staff did this because Kayla requested it. And that is amazing that she was able to say, “I need help right now. I’m gonna get this done but I need your help.” Unfortunately, the military does not do well with mail so she didn’t get the mail until she got back here. She now lives in Bellevue and moved into military housing. We helped her get furniture and she’s doing well and is still connected with us.
Q: So what can we as a community do to bring more awareness about youth homelessness and what can we do to help?
Mary: “Youth homelessness can happen anywhere. It is not confined to just poorer parts of the community. We serve youth from all different communities and school districts. What I would like people to do is talk about it. Talk about it with your kids at the kitchen table, talk about it when you’re driving you’re car, because young people may know someone who is homeless. If we talk about it more there’s a better chance of us intervening and keeping them safe.”
Yes has 38 staff that care for around 4,000 youth a year. They work with countless local community partners to ensure that help is available to youth in need—Boys Town, Heartland Family Service, as well as many area churches, to name a few.
YES and the WCA also have partnered to create an anti-trafficking campaign called Indigo. Indigo is a resource for building awareness, educating the community, and healing victims of sex and human trafficking in the Omaha metro area.
There are many ways to help homeless youth in the community. Besides donations of clothing and hygiene products, what is most valuable to the youth are gift cards for places like Walmart, Walgreens and Subway. They can also use bus passes and pre-paid gas cards for the youth that have cars.
If you shop online, when you shop at Amazon Smile, Amazon will donate a portion of your purchase price to YES. You can also order items from YES’ Amazon Wish List.
By working together we can end homelessness for these young people so they can live successful lives—Just like Kayla
For more information about YES you can visit their website at http://www.yesomaha.org