Housing instability and homelessness can be defined by frequent moves, couch-surfing, eviction, living in severely overcrowded housing, and living in housing that is not stable (Cutts, Meyers, Black, Casey, Chilton, Cook, & Rose-Jacobs, 2011). Housing instability and homelessness create significant barriers to academic, social and emotional functioning (Gregory, Wilcox, & Lawson, 2017). Young people experiencing housing instability and homelessness also experience disconnection from school, in the form of interruptions in instruction, excessive absenteeism, chaotic environments, stress, and disruptions in receipt of support from network members including peers, mentors, and teachers (Brennan, Reed, and Sturtevant, 2014).
Schools can function as a healthy, consistent and structured environment for young people experiencing housing instability and homelessness. In conjunction with programs like Housing First, after-school programs and community-based sponsored services, without preconditions, can further support the lives of young people experiencing the various types of housing instability. Additionally, schools and their associated services can provide safe spaces that are non-violent, structured and consistent, which is often not the case for these vulnerable youth.
With this in mind, Step-Up, a school-based program of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at the New York University Silver School of Social Work, utilizes a positive youth development (PYD) framework to support adolescents by strengthening their sense of competence, self-efficacy, belonging, and empowerment related to participation in positive behaviors, and to reduce the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors such as drug use, unprotected sex, and truancy (Bowers, Li, Kiely, Brittian, Lerner,& Lerner, 2010. Step-Up offers “one-on-one” mentorship, life skills groups, mental health support, structured opportunities for community service, and leadership development by working with poverty-impacted African American, Latino and LGBTQ school-aged youth in New York City’s public school system. Although Step-Up does not specifically target youth experiencing housing instability and homelessness, some families of youth in schools targeted by Step-Up actually experience housing instability and homelessness. The Step-Up program also incorporates youth engagement and mentorship components with high school youth, which is unique because services are offered in a school vs. a shelter setting.
The PYD framework has been an essential feature of prevention programs targeting youth experiencing housing instability and homelessness. This framework is an integral feature of the Step-Up curriculum and moves beyond a deficit model to more of a strengths-based approach, particularly involving youth in the develop of the actual curriculum. In Step-Up, PYD principles are also incorporated to build on youth strengths and resiliency and to provide opportunities for youth to acknowledge and process interpersonal issues through exposure to new experiences. Program activities such PhotoVoice with the Josephine Herrick Project, overnight trips to Camp Ramapo, and community service opportunities with organization such as the Youth Services Opportunity Project allow youth to critically think, question, and analyze the world around them, while honing in on their leadership skills. PYD ultimately meets the needs of youth experiencing housing instability and homelessness by providing skills of self-efficacy.
Another key aspect of the Step-Up program’s success is its mentorship component. Mentorship increases intrapsychic measures of well-being in youth, as well as social confidence and healthy behaviors (Curran & Wexler, 2017). Implementing successful mentorship requires flexibility, authentic decision making and reciprocal learning that allow both youth and adults to showcase their skills and talents (Heffernan, Herzog, Schiralli, Hawke, Chaim, & Henderson, 2017). One-on-one mentors assist youth with enhancing their informed decision-making skills, and self-advocacy. In this regard, Step-Up can help youth experiencing housing instability and homelessness create healthy and stable adult relationships. Program mentors are professionals or in-training mental health providers such as psychologists, social workers, and mental health counselors who model positive adult relationships and foster caring, stable, and creative environments where youth discuss topics relevant to their lives. Mentorship connects youth experiencing housing instability and homelessness to positive adult role models.
A final indispensable component of the Step-Up model is youth engagement. Youth engagement can be defined as “helping youth gain a sense of control over their own lives and take an active role in shaping the programs and activities around them through their words and actions” (Yonezawa, Jones, & Joselowsky, 2009, p. 260). Youth engagement is salient because it helps youth increase self-esteem, build personal and professional networks, bolster their life skills, all of which are critical for successful transition to adulthood. Moreover, youth become active participants in shaping the Step-Up program. In addition to collecting feedback through formal annual evaluations, Step-Up utilizes a youth collaborative board to inform and revise aspects of its Life-Skills curriculum. The youth collaborative board come together during the summer months to review and edit the curriculum in order to improve the experience for the next cohort of Step-Up members and to ensure topics are current and up to date. Curriculum topics in the LS curriculum include: effective communication, coping and stress management, relationships (friends, family, partners), race and racism, health and wellness, drugs and alcohol, sex and sexuality, the cycle of violence, to name a few (Parchment et al., 2016). The collaboration promotes ownership of the overall experience and acknowledges youth as experts of their own experience in Step-Up. Youth voice in curriculum, work to build therapeutic relationships with one-on-ones. Youth engagement gives youth experiencing housing instability and homelessness a voice and a choice when they often feel invisible and ignored.
To summarize, the goal of Step-Up is to build life skills, promote positive youth development, identify and address individual student needs, and sustain engagement via opportunities for interaction with peers and staff throughout the program. Step-Up is an exemplary example of how a program with a PYD framework can be deployed to address the issues facing youth experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. Although Step-Up primarily functions in school settings, it can be easily adapted for youth living in shelters.