The cost of providing a safety net for at-risk youth is $5,000 per year; the cost of housing a San Quentin inmate is $60,000 per year. Which would you prefer?
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What's your reaction when you see a young person begging for money, living in a park or under a freeway? Do you think, "Why don't you just get a job? In and Out Burgers pays $11.00 an hour. I'm not buying your beer." I admit to my own uneasiness and temptation to judge, and I also wonder what has happened to this young person that made them drop out? Who crushed their spirit?
In 2003, M. Wald and T. Martinez conducted the Stanford University study "Connected by 25: Improving the Life Chances of the Country's Most Vulnerable 14-24 year olds." In that mouthful of study, they concluded that, "In our society, almost all youth require support until they have connected successfully with the labor force, which generally does not occur until the mid-twenties." Stanford also found that high school dropouts, those in the juvenile justice system and incarcerated youth are unlikely to reach age 25 without becoming homeless.
I live in one of the most wealthy communities in America, yet in the last two decades public education has taken disastrous hits. Schools are overcrowded and understaffed. Facilities are in embarrassing disrepair. Books are outdated and materials are non-existent unless a teacher or other benefactor has provided them. Voters rallied to make money available to alleviate these conditions, but the money can’t come quickly enough to save some adolescents.
Nationally, school dropout rates are on the rise. Programs in place are under-funded and inadequate to meet the needs of the underprivileged. The majority of these youths have not had the often presumed benefits of stability and support. They may be economically deprived. Someone in their family may have emotional or other medical disability. They or a family member may be addicted to illegal or prescription drugs or alcohol or may be or have been incarcerated. Under any of these conditions they probably have been in foster care or have become a runaway.
The fastest growing demographic of homeless, 14 to 25 year olds, are not served by most agencies. In fact, these young people are not counted in the Census. They don't carry cell phones, possess a mailing address – let alone email, a driver's license or car. They sleep on a friend's couch if they're lucky, camp out in parks and hidey-holes known only to the cult. Some commit a crime to be arrested and taken in from the cold.
Years ago, my then thirteen-year-old daughter said to me, "When you were a kid, all you had to decide was if you liked the Beatles." What she meant was that she was feeling overwhelmed by the choices that lay before her in the present and for her future. Life had already become worrisome to my daughter who had many advantages. Here we are decades later, and society frightens and overwhelms me at times. Is it any wonder, then, that many of today's youth are at a loss?
When children have been confronted with poverty, neglect or abuse, without extra measures of guidance and support, the burden can devastate them. Several studies find that two to four years after leaving foster care, only half the youth were regularly employed. Half the young women had given birth to a child and were dependent on welfare. Nearly half had experienced arrest, and a quarter had already been homeless.
The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood states that a quarter of the cost of raising children is incurred after age 17. Yet no funding has been provided youth without families or a caring adult. "The institutions that would typically support young people as they made the transition to adulthood (schools, workplaces, families) have not adapted to the changing conditions of life at the turn of the 21st century. All of these conditions have contributed to making the process of moving from adolescence into adulthood more difficult."
The Network overlooks the responsibility of the community. As a matter of conscience, as a matter of spiritual or religious consciousness, don't we feel a compulsion to assist these youths? We are the village that it takes to raise a child. We are the elders who can share our knowledge and wisdom and provide encouragement and support.
I'm not talking about a handout – that will only get them through a moment in time. I mean helping in ways that will teach them to stand on their own. We can provide guidance and positive individual attention that is needed to develop enough self-esteem to believe that they can make it in this complex society.
In Marin County, California, Zara Babitzke has taken up the cause to garner support for vulnerable youth. She drafted Jimmy Hayes, age 23, as Outreach Advisor and Molly Kron, age 22, as Youth Program Advisor. In 2005, they incorporated the nonprofit organization Ambassadors for Hope and Opportunity (AHO). AHO provides youth with opportunities to support them on their path to independent adults by offering community resources to fit their needs.
The mission of AHO www.ahoproject.org
is to serve youth at-risk as a result of economic, medical or social disadvantage. They achieve their goals by providing stable housing through Parent Partners; guidance with adult and peer mentors and tutors; community connections to services and leadership opportunities. AHO recruits businesses; community organizations; adults and youth to lend a hand to youth in need.
Host Families open their home to a formerly homeless youth for up to six months to provide the stability crucial for them to begin building a meaningful and secure life. AHO has recruited 13 Host Families to date. Each young person is matched with a Life Coach with whom they meet four to six hours per week. With the guidance of their coach, the youth develops a plan for education, job and life goals. They are mentored by an adult and peer. Youth clients are offered community connections to services for health care, psychotherapy and financial support. They receive help with applications for GED, college and scholarships. They are connected to resources for work wardrobes and other personal needs.
The first four youths from the pilot program currently live in apartments with peers, continue support with a life coach and peer mentor. They have jobs, are working toward educational goals and now mentor other youth who are currently homeless.
In the first year of AHO, 93 individuals received services. The cost of ignoring the needs of at-risk youth can lead to dependence on state and federal welfare programs. The cost of housing an inmate in the Marin County jail for a year is $41,975. The cost at San Quentin for a year is $60,000. The cost for casting the safety net AHO provides is $5,000 per youth per year.
Rex Foundation, created by friends and family of the Grateful Dead in 1983 presented AHO with a generous check in 2005. They do not accept requests for funding. They choose worthwhile organizations. In-depth profiles of Zara, James (Jimmy), and Molly, and more about AHO appear on their website. The interviewer said to Zara, "You seem to have profound faith in the power of every young person's inner spirit, regardless of how much they have been beaten down by circumstances and the system." He asked Zara, where that comes from. The answer makes for a compelling and heartwarming read. You'll find it on RexFoundation.org, click on Food for Thought then Ambassadors for Hope and Opportunity http://rexfoundation.org/foodforthought/ambassadors.html
A planning committee of AHO youths have joined to produce events in the community to champion young people. In November 2006, AHO held the first annual youth-organized community assembly, "It's My Life Forum: Building Youth Leaders Now and for the Future." For the adult panel the ambitious youth organizers enlisted Congresswoman, Lynn Woolsey; State Assemblyman, Jared Huffman; San Francisco Mayor, Gavin Newsom; San Rafael Mayor, Al Boro; clinical psychologist and author Nell Bernstein, and County Supervisor, Susan Adams. Michael Krasney podcast the event on http://www.kqed.org/radio/
KQED, a San Francisco Bay Area PBS radio station.
Intervention in the lives of at-risk youth reduces welfare dependence; reduces substance abuse; reduces return to crime, jail, the juvenile justice system and prison; reduces emergency medical care and earlier diagnoses and treatment of physical or mental illness. Intervention creates stronger communities which includes young energetic citizens to share communal responsibilities with vigor, wisdom and soaring spirits. Watch out world, these youth are on the rise!