“Spin to win!” Wendy Hammond called to the students of Dryden High School as they walked past the cafeteria. Her colorful spinning wheel and table of swag enticed some of them to find out what was going on. The idea was simple, spin the wheel, answer a question, win a prize. But some of the questions, and the answers, were not as fun. Across the country, the month of November was Runaway and Homeless Youth Awareness Month and Hammond, along with fellow organizations that work with homeless youth, decided to spread the word about local services. To win a prize, students were asked to answer questions like ‘How many teens will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home?’ Not quite as amusing as ‘Spin to win!’ The answer? One in three.
Hammond is a caseworker with Open Doors, a program through Family and Children’s Services that assists homeless youth in the area ages 12 to 21. Tompkins County does not have a shelter for homeless or runaway youth and the shelters that are here often don’t take in people under the age of 18 because they can be very dangerous places. Open Doors works with host homes throughout the area to give homeless youth a safe, stable place to live while their situation is figured out. Hammond and her fellow case worker Mustafaa Ali set up multiple visits to area schools during the month of November to help spread the word about Open Doors, and the dangers that homeless and runaway youth face.
Even for students that didn’t stop to spin the wheel and answer a question, Hammond handed out green ribbons, the chosen color for National Runaway and Homeless Youth Awareness Month, that were safety pinned to cards with information about how to contact Open Doors, the Advocacy Center, and The Learning Web, all local organizations that work with area youth.
On this particularly cold day in November, both the Advocacy Center and The Learning Web were tabling with Open Doors in Dryden. Lyn Staak, Youth Community Educator for the Advocacy Center brought a Plinko game that gave students questions or challenges based on what the Advocacy Center offers and the programs the center does. Nino Hoder, a case manager with The Learning Web, spoke to the students about the opportunities and programs available through the organization, including helping youth find jobs that will sustain a life outside of their parent’s home.
“A lot of people think that being homeless means you must be sleeping on the streets or in an alleyway or even in your car but it actually can be really invisible because homelessness in Tompkins County often looks like couch surfing, and people think ‘Oh at least they have a roof over their heads’,” Hammond said. “But every day they’re waking up and having to re-think ‘Where am I sleeping tonight?’”
Couch surfing through a group of friends is a better option than sleeping in a car, but it’s not a sustainable option for many youths. It’s not uncommon to hear about youth who feel pressured into situations, sometimes sexual, when the person they are staying with demands compensation for letting a homeless youth stay with them. It’s situations like this where the work of Open Doors overlaps with the work of the Advocacy Center.
When Hammond and Ali are connected with a homeless youth or runaway the first thing they do is try to find them a safe place to stay with a family member or friend. If that isn’t an option, the youth is placed in a local safe house. They are never coerced or forced to go back to their family, but family mediation is a tool that Open Doors does use.
“We really meet people where they’re at, so what we do can look like a lot of different things,” Hammond said.
During mediation, Hammond or Ali will speak with the parents while their child stays at a host home for a few nights. But during the separation, they keep in contact with both sides to find a way to create an environment that both parties can live in. If a youth is in danger, both Ali and Hammond are mandated reporters, they are obligated to report abuse when they know it is happening. Youth that are being helped by Open Doors cannot be taken back to their family by the police against their will. They can also advocate for youth with courts, schools, and even employers. For youth who don’t have anywhere to go, the organization works with host homes in the area that provide a safe place to stay in the short term, typically less than a week. Open Doors is always looking for more safe host homes to work with. But the organization also makes sure that homeless youth are given things that they need like clothes, food, toiletries, or even transportation.
“Sometimes they say ‘Oh I could stay with my aunt but she lives in Syracuse. I don’t have any way to get to Syracuse,’” Hammond said. “We find a way to get them there safely. Oftentimes we drive them ourselves.”
In 2016 Open Doors helped 150 local youths, and the number has hovered around that mark for several years. Working with other local nonprofits and organizations is a necessity because of the overlap of causes. The same reason why someone might be going to the Advocacy Center could be the same reason someone would need the help of Open Doors, the challenge that prevents someone from leaving their home might be answered at The Learning Web. Making local youth aware of these resources is a challenge.
“It’s wonderful having a month because it’s something that we could do anyway but it really gets us out there and gives us a reason to be standing up and saying ‘This is really important in our community,’” Hammond said. “We’re an organization that you don’t think about until you need it, and then how do you find us?”
Throughout the month of November, Open Doors visited high schools across the county to educate local youth about the dangers that they could face on their own. But more importantly, to let them know they don’t have to face those dangers alone.
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