Due to the ongoing pandemic, the Lynn English Class of 2005 is supporting two local Lynn organizations in lieu of an in-person or virtual gathering to mark our 15th year since graduation. One of those organization is the Haven Project, whose mission is to equip and empower homeless young adults between the ages of 17 and 24 with the skills and resources needed to be safe and independent. After going live with our fundraiser on April 27th, I connected with the Haven Project in order to share a little bit about what they do.
For those who don’t know, tell us a little bit about the scope of homelessness in Lynn/on the North Shore for the population you serve (those ages 17 - 24).
Lynn Public High Schools report that there are over 420 homeless unaccompanied young adults attending high school who are not in the care of a parent or guardian. This number does not incorporate those who have already dropped out of school, which national homelessness experts estimate is often 4-5 times the number still attending school. A recent survey taken by North Shore Community College indicated that 19% of students were housing insecure. While there are other organizations in the state serving this population, no comprehensive, age-appropriate services existed for this population in our area prior to our founding.
By comparison, is Lynn unique in this area when you look at other cities statewide?
Lynn has a much higher percentage of homeless young adults than surrounding communities. Community poverty, addiction, mental health challenges, cultural expectations, and perceived lack of opportunity are some of the reasons for this. Lynn is leading the state in rallying around the efforts to identify youth who are in need of services due to housing insecurity and connecting them with resources. Social service agencies, such as the Haven Project, have played a great role in raising attention to the issue of youth homelessness which was previously invisible and grossly underestimated. The work of vigilant staff in the Lynn Public School system and the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless has gotten the attention of state agencies and some state funding for this population.
The Haven Project was established nearly ten years ago. How have you seen the need evolve since you first opened?
When we began operations in November of 2012, there was no acknowledgement that this population even existed. The nuances of youth and young adult homelessness juxtaposed with the stereotypes associated with chronic elder homelessness were unknown even among agencies dedicated to helping the homeless population. When we opened, we really had to be creative to draw out this population and get them engaged with our services, as many of them did not think their situation qualified for assistance. Since that time, we have played a major role in raising awareness about youth homelessness, and other services and funds have been allotted. Our award-winning social enterprise, Land of a Thousand Hills Café, has served as one of the ways we have raised community awareness of the local issue of youth homelessness.
As the community has become more aware, we have noticed that for some young people, being homeless has become normalized and may be viewed as a lifestyle choice. For other young people, this awareness of our services has caused them to reach out while they are at risk of homelessness, but not homeless yet. We are currently evolving our programming to engage with youth at risk of homelessness and implementing trainings and preventative case management. We are very excited to be adding preventative community services to our programming.
How has the COVID pandemic changed some of the needs among homeless/housing insecure young people? How have you had to change how you assist with these needs?
We typically have a caseload of 60 young adults, but because so many of our more stable clients are now unstable, we are currently working with about 150 homeless young adults in Lynn and Salem. Many of our clients were recently laid-off from their jobs, so not only are we providing a lot of basic needs such as food and clothing, sanitizer, face masks, and personal hygiene kits, we are also paying cell phone bills and other urgent needs.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we operated two Drop-in Centers (DIC), one in downtown Lynn, open every weekday, and one in Salem which was open one afternoon a week, where clients could Drop-in. Because of safety and social distancing, we are now scheduling appointments and interacting virtually through phone calls, FB messenger, texts, and Zoom meetings. We are still offering job-training and workshops for our clients to earn income; this is no longer happening at our social enterprise, which is currently closed, but at My Brothers Table with staff a few times each week. We are also incentivizing motivated clients with a new tablet to take online classes and gain job related certifications. We are continuing to get clients jobs; 5 have gotten a job in the past 10 days.
Additionally, advocacy and knowledge are a big part of our activities these days: how to be safe, how to apply for unemployment, knowing what their rights are as renters and what online social activities are available, etc. There is a lot of attention towards ensuring clients are feeling emotionally supported as they are particularly isolated, vulnerable, and restless.
Thinking about the intersection between housing and education, in what ways do you think this pandemic will affect young people in precarious situations trying to complete high school?
There are already so many barriers for some of these young adults to complete high school, such as a lack of understanding about the importance of education and a lack of motivation and support from their families and friends, that it is now easier than ever to fall behind. There is less accountability and many more personal distractions that can deter these young adults in completing their assignments. To make matters worse, many of our clients don’t have the necessary resources such as computers and access to the internet for them to be competitive with their peers. That is why we are providing affected clients with a free tablet to help them with their schoolwork and gain job related certifications that will help them in their future. Fortunately, the resourcefulness and flexibility of the Lynn Public School educators has and continues to be amazing during this time.
Similarly, as far as mental health is concerned, what are you seeing from your clients at this time?
Isolation can be very tough for our clients and many are feeling vulnerable and restless. We are checking in with all our clients frequently and have compiled a list of apps that will help with their mental health, including fitness, journaling, and gaming apps. We are also beginning Zoom social events this week and we will test engagement and interest over the next couple of weeks. Most of our young adults are resistant to mental health counseling, but with the use of virtual services now allowed, we think our clients may actually engage more and be open to mental health services. For example, telehealth services are more attractive to a young person who does not have transportation funds to travel to an appointment. Some agencies even provide mental health coaching through texting. We are building relationships with appropriate providers and are continuously encouraging and discussing all options to not only stay safe during this time, but are encouraging active learning, skill development, and personal growth.
Do you foresee the pandemic changing your operations/services even after some of the precautions we’re taking now (social distancing, etc.) are phased out?
We are excited about some of the things we are learning at this time and we expect to be stronger as a staff and an agency when this is “over”. For example, we are currently developing online trainings for youth who will be in our job training program; this will make our job training staff more efficient. We are also creating Haven Project staff and café staff onboarding and training videos. Staff is not only creating training videos, they are also leveling up. In the last 6 weeks, each staff has had a minimum of 6 hours of paid professional development and will have another 6-8 hours by mid- June. In addition, we are perfecting virtual 1:1 case management and are making our off-site social activities more interactive and encompassing.
If people are interested in supporting your organization, how can they help?
At this moment, cash donations are the most helpful. Anyone interested and able can donate directly at: https://havenproject.net/donate/. 100% of all donations go towards ensuring our clients get the skills and support they need to be stable and independent.
We also need help getting the word out about our program on social media. We encourage everyone to follow us on Facebook by searching @Haven.Project57 or clicking here and our social enterprise, Land of a Thousand Hills, by searching @lothlynn or clicking here. Please also follow our Instagram, loth_lynn, at: https://www.instagram.com/loth_lynn/.