Connecting Disconnected Youth

This past June a nonpartisan organization called Measure of America issued a report entitled, "Zeroing in on Place and Race - Youth Disconnection in America's Cities." It begins, "Disconnected youth are teenagers and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school. There are 5,527,000 disconnected youth in America today, or one in seven young adults (18.8 percent) - about as many people as live in Minnesota. The national disconnected youth population is larger than the populations of thirty US states." It continues, "The costs of disconnection are high, both for individuals and for society. Disconnected youth are cut off from the people, institutions, and experiences that would otherwise help them develop the knowledge, skills, maturity, and sense of purpose required to live rewarding lives as adults. And the negative effects of youth disconnection ricochet across the economy, the social sector, the criminal justice system, and the political landscape, affecting all of us."

Several people sent me the link to this report because they know that I am the executive director of Spectrum Youth & Family Services, which works with this very population every day. Based in Burlington, the largest city in Vermont, we work with young men and women ages 14 to 24, and "disconnected" is an adjective that well-describes the predicament in which most find themselves.

Founded in 1970, Spectrum is recognized both locally and nationally as a nonprofit organization that works in terms of how to assist disconnected youth. When I describe Spectrum to people, I portray it as having an "open door" approach. By this I mean that young people come to us with a wide range of needs, but once they are "inside" Spectrum, they can take advantage of a multiplicity of services.

For example, some of the youth who come to us for help are literally homeless. They are either runaways or their family has disintegrated around them due to poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism or substance abuse. Such young people often couch-surf for a while but eventually run out of friends with whom they can stay. They then turn to us, and we have an 8-bed residence we call the Landing in which they can reside. One floor below the Landing is our Drop-In Center, where they can receive a free hot lunch and dinner and also receive free clothing which people have donated; this is especially valuable during the cold Vermont months when a warm coat, boots and gloves are a necessity. Adjacent to Drop-In is a free health clinic which is run by the Community Health Centers of Burlington and staffed with doctors, nurses and physician assistants. A few blocks away we have our own licensed mental health and substance abuse clinicians on staff, because we know a good percentage of disconnected youth suffer from mental illness and/or addiction. We have employment specialists at Spectrum who are linked to local businesses and also provide our youth with pre-employment preparation. Every youth is introduced to a Case Manager, and one of their primary responsibilities is to ascertain where a youth is at educationally and help them to either secure their high school diploma or GED, or move on to college, which is often the Community College of Vermont, a short bus ride away. We also have a Mentoring Coordinator on staff who recruits adult volunteers to serve as mentors for those youth expressing the desire for one.

Essential to all this is that we provide a path for disconnected youth. The Landing is just where they start. If they are progressing on their goals, they can move over to one of our two transitional housing residences nearby. Each has shared living spaces, and a youth is supplied with a key to the front door and the key to their own room. Everyone pays one-third of their income in rent, and we ask that they save another portion of their check in a bank account we help them to open. We ask them to do volunteer service in Burlington, so they are not only receiving help but giving back to others as well. We have staff on site during the evenings and overnights, and their focus is really on helping youth to develop what are known as Life Skills, i.e. the things they will need to know in order to one day live on their own, such as budgeting their money, applying to college, figuring out financial aid, what a lease is, how a car loan works, etc. Youth in these residences can live for up to two years with us, and they then graduate with a federal Section 8 voucher which enables them to obtain their own apartment at a subsidized rent. We have even had youth graduate from Spectrum and a year or two later come back to work for us as counselors, often proving to be some of the most highly effective workers we have.

All this is for the disconnected youth we encounter who are homeless or runaways. We actually work with hundreds of others who do have a place to live but have dropped out of high school or who are in trouble with the justice system, aging out of foster care, unemployed, or addicted to substances who might use one or several of the services listed above.

Spectrum is a model that works. It is a solution to a vexing problem with which our nation is struggling to come to terms. Or as one young woman who had been homeless, and left us to join the United States Navy, put it:

Hey Mark, I didn't get a chance to stop by and say bye before I go off and become a sailor, but I wanted to say thank you and all of Spectrum for everything you guys do. Spectrum has been behind me 100 percent in everything I wanted to do and become the last four years of my life. Four years ago I was a different person. I wasn't as confident in myself as I am today, and that is because Spectrum believed in me and I saw that, and then I started believing in myself. I have grown so much with the help of you guys. There needs to be more places like this across America, and it's sad there isn't.