While the city of Portland grapples with breakneck growth, a lack of affordable housing and a homeless crisis that shows no signs of slowing, one organization has managed to ride the curve for the last 20 years by adapting to the needs of marginalized youth.
It started back in 1997 with a group of volunteers from the Salvation Army’s Greenhouse program, which at the time provided services for homeless youth. Their idea was to close the gaps in those services by creating a new, integrated system of care – from basic needs like meals and counseling to providing opportunities in education, employment and housing. The result was New Avenues for Youth.
Today, the nonprofit organization has assisted more than 20,000 homeless youth in the Portland metro area with the support of volunteers, government grants, contributions, and more.
The Skanner News sat down with its executive director Sean Suib to discuss what makes his organization’s model unique, as well as the biggest challenges they face in a rapidly evolving city.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
The Skanner News: Could you explain who New Avenues for Youth primarily serves and the types of services the organization provides?
Sean Suib: The way I like to describe it is we serve about four intersecting populations of disconnected youth. One would be what folks think of as “street kids” or homeless youth. I often talk about them as “street-dependent” kids, so young people who are getting their needs met living out on the street. Another key population is LGBTQ youth, for whom we have culturally specific services.
“The connecting point is that upwards of 40 percent of the youth who live on the streets identify as LGBTQ.”
We also have kids coming from various systems of care, so we focus a lot on foster care transition – there’s also a strong connection between someone aging out of foster care and becoming homeless within three years. And lastly, we have a suite of services focused on young people who wouldn’t meet the definition of homeless, but they’re really housing unstable. So a lot of these kids are couch surfing, they’re living in drug- and gang-impacted housing, as well as sex-impacted housing.
The how we serve is a whole spectrum, a kind of internal continuum. We have everything from drop-in centers where you get basic needs like food, clothing and laundry. Then as they’re using basic needs, you invite them into the next steps; for example, drug and alcohol supports, peer mentors, health mental supports. We’re a credited alternative school and we have a career workforce development center. We also have social enterprises, which means we own two Ben & Jerry’s ice cream carts at the Oregon Zoo, and we have a screen printing business. And then we have a whole spectrum of housing programs, including a 26-bed transitional housing facility and two LGBTQ-specific housing programs. We also partnered with Bridge Meadows and built an apartment building that’s connected to a multi-generational community focused on kids aging out of foster care.
TSK: How has your organization adapted to Portland’s shifting demographics?
SS: We’ve put a lot of focus on our racial equity work over the last few years, particularly trying to figure out, like many organizations, how to be more conscious and more representative of the community we serve. We’ve had some success in intentionally changing services to better match the community needs – and we’ve also had some success in attracting and engaging people from many different communities to come work here. It’s so important that these folks who are essentially re-parenting homeless youth look like the kids they’re serving.
“This is a pretty inclusive place and we’re pushing ourselves to think less like a dominate culture organization and more like a multi-cultural organization.”
Consequently, that would create a better place for young people to experience more cultural responsiveness.
TSN: Has Portland’s recent homeless crisis put a strain on the services New Avenues has been providing for the last 20 years?
SS: It’s multi-pronged. Families in crisis eventually produce more homeless youth. There are families who are moving constantly because of a $25 difference in rent, or because of the mobility around poverty, so that’s going to keep young people coming into our facility. The larger conversation around homelessness, not just youth, is tied to affordable housing. But that impacts us to, because how do you get kids or anybody out of homelessness? They got to have homes! We convene with west coast providers and we hear about homeless kids in San Francisco being sent to Oklahoma for housing. Or in Seattle, they say, “I can help somebody get healthier, but I can’t help them afford to live here.” You just can’t change that. I would say the challenge has gotten much greater, the bar keeps moving, and the nature of kids’ experiences keeps changing. We as an organization have tried to evolve and change our strategies.
TSN: The minimum wage is now $12 per hour in Portland. Do you believe the recent increase is helpful when transitioning homeless youth into the workforce?
SS: There’s a lot of low end jobs for young people, but there is also a generational component happening, which concerns me. The young people coming up now have really unrealistic expectations about what a career pathway looks like and what they should be entitled to, from a workforce standpoint. There are lots of jobs out there, but getting young people to a place where first, they’re healthy enough, and secondly, they’re willing to do the job that’s available, that’s really hard. In the last three to four years, that’s been the hardest part about workforce development. It used to be about just getting the young person ready and they were thrilled to jump into it. Now, you get them ready and they want to be record producers. So there really is a disconnect and the industries are all clamoring to try to figure it out. And we’re trying to figure it out. How do we help young people set realistic expectations? Certainly, having a better minimum wage helps, but there’s still a major livability gap.
TSN: New Avenues recently expanded to East Multnomah County and launched the Youth Opportunity Center as a new service hub. Why the need to go east?
SS: It’s a trend that started happening about a decade ago. We were noticing that the average age of kid on the street was going up, from 16 years old to closer to 21 or 22. So we started asking the question – where did the younger kids go? Essentially, we funded a study and examined this – and it turns out it’s really complicated, there’s a lot of factors. We looked at some of the more obvious forces like the change in demographics in our community, gentrification, the concentration of poverty, the lack of affordable housing, and the impacts of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Fifteen years ago, because poverty was closer to the urban center, if a young person got kicked out of their house at 16 they spilled out to Pioneer Square or the bus station. Now, those families no longer live near the urban center, they’re out much further. Demographically, East Multnomah County has the highest concentration of young people in the state and the highest concentration of poverty. And we know there’s a lot of young people there who are getting their housing needs met through survival. So while we robustly serve youth through our downtown hub – through both a racial and general equity lens – we had to bring our services to the community with the highest concentration of kids who are experiencing housing instability.