An Interview with USYF founder Melissa Ballard and Rachel Sanchez from My Friend's Place
November 19, 2021
Interviewee Name: Rachel Sanchez (Volunteer and Community Engagement Manager at My Friend’s Place)
Interviewer Name: Melissa Ballard (Founder of United States Youth Forum)
Transcription By: Kelly Ferguson (Editorial Assistant at United States Youth Forum)
Date of Interview: November 4, 2021
List of Acronyms: MB = Melissa Ballard, RS = Rachel Sanchez
[Intro] MB: Rachel Sanchez is the Volunteer and Community Engagement Manager at My
Friend’s Place, a youth shelter serving young people who are experiencing homelessness in the Los Angeles area. Today we will hear more about the mission of My Friend’s Place, the work that they do, how to change your mindset when it comes to perceptions of youth homelessness, and how we can assist My Friend’s Place in meeting their mission.
MB: Rachel, thank you so much for joining me today for an interview about My
Friend's Place, the work My Friend's Place does, and the work you do as well. I think it would be good to start with a more general question - could you walk us through your service model, what is the mission behind My Friend's Place?
RS: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. The mission of
My Friend's Place is to assist and inspire homeless youth to build self-sufficient lives. That's literally our mission statement. And yes, I think the majority of staff has it memorized at this point, but it's core to what we do. It's not just assisting; it's inspiring as well. Our service model is built around trauma-informed care and our core values of providing a judgment-free, low-barrier, strength-based, harm-reduction, trust-felt, human-worth, individualized response environment. So really, it's working with these young people that, by and large, have been failed by systems and adults in their lives.
We have four main programmatic areas. Our Safe Haven is kind of that entry-point that cares for the basic needs with direct services–things like food, clothing, showers, a little respect, some connection, and community.
We have our Intake and Crisis Care team that helps with welcoming young folks into our space. The first time they come to us, they do an intake conversation mostly for us to learn a little about them and for them to learn about us and how we can partner together to meet their needs. The Intake and Crisis Care team also supports documentation. So, we have this super exciting field trip to the DMV to get IDs every week [Laughing] for a small group of youth. We have a standing appointment that we can help with, and also animal companion care as well.
We have our Transformative Education Program, which is everything from creative arts to education and employment. So, that's providing ways for young people to explore their interests, their identities, their passions; to build, grow, and learn new skills; and to have some fun or provide some levity in what might be an otherwise pretty intense, heavy existence. So, you know, it’s providing them an opportunity just to work with some clay, paint a picture, maybe write through song lyrics, or eventually, after Covid is over, do a recording studio [Laughing] again. That's like one that we keep getting requests to have back, but, because of health and safety concerns, we still have to pause that until we can figure out a better way [Laughing] to make it work.
And then our final programmatic area is our Health and Well-Being team. So, this is a team of social workers and case managers onsite that do everything from providing physical, mental, and emotional health support–you know, just being someone to talk to–to also providing that housing case management support. So, it’s helping the young people navigate the super complex housing system to obtain housing, particularly in LA. You know, that's a challenge.
So really, we provide wrap-around services for each individual young person that comes to My Friend's Place. Key in some of our core values is that individualized response. So, it’s not requiring everyone to participate in everything; they don't have to go to all of the different programmatic areas. If they just want to come in, get food, and go, that’s great. If they want to come in and work in an art workshop or meet with the case manager, that’s also great. We want to work with them in the way that makes sense to them.
MB: Awesome. It sounds like a really well-rounded concept with many different
areas and pillars that take young people through the different places where they might be or [what] they need; and provides a sense of fun and a sense of having something in their lives. Then, you have the Crisis Center and mental well-being, and also, just the logistics of walking them through what is the next step for obtaining housing. So, it's a lot of different kinds of–I don't want to say silos…That’s probably the wrong word–areas to go through to have these individualized solutions.
My Friend's Place began as a group of volunteers who were serving food from the trunks of their cars. That was the beginning journey. Now, it's this fully operational resource center. How did that transition happen? How did you go from this group of volunteers serving food out of the trunks of their cars to this operating center? And what inspired this group to initially begin doing that?
RS: Yeah, that's an excellent question. So, we are almost 34 years old now. Yeah.
[Laughing] We've been around for a while, and yes, we started off with our co-founders - they were working in Hollywood, had seen some young people experiencing homelessness, and wanted to help support them. The co-founders offered to bring them sack lunches, and, really, the need kept growing and growing. Maybe they saw a handful of youths one Friday, and then, the next Friday, there were 50 youths. And then, they just kept seeing more and more, so it became a volunteer-led, sack lunch delivery program. But, again, in conversation with the young people, they realized there was more there. Food is one thing, but providing some additional resources that would happen in a resource center–providing a place of respite or somewhere where someone could hang out for a couple of hours–is another.
You know, by and large, the young people that we serve have really–I guess I’ve already mentioned this–been failed by adults and systems in their lives, so they don't really trust us. So, it’s building that trust, care, and a safe, welcoming environment. It’s providing some care and guidance from adults that are kind, friendly, and listening to them, perhaps in ways that they haven't been cared for before.
So, I think at some point–I'm not exactly sure how the decision was made. [Laughing] Like, we need to become a nonprofit, an open resource center, but I imagine it's very similar to how we function today in that a need comes up. You know, many of our workshops or programs have started out of youth interest or have started out a conversation where someone said, "You know what, I'd really like to learn how to sew." And, you know what, let's start a sewing workshop! [Laughing] It’s providing that opportunity for the young people to meet their interests and their needs, and the co-founders realized there needs to be a place for the young people to go.
We were pretty ragtag in the beginning. It's still somewhat small, in terms of our space. It was much smaller and didn't provide too much beyond a place to sit, to get some food, and maybe use the bathroom inside. And now, we have a little bit more space than that, although Covid has changed that a little bit and we're doing all the hard services outside under giant pop-up tents. However, we are slowly bringing things inside.
MB: Yeah. The slow transition back inside.
RS: Yeah. [Laughing] Keeping the health and safety of the young people in mind is
always first and foremost for us, and because we serve a mixed-vaccinated status population, we just want to make sure that they are as healthy and safe as possible.
MB: Yeah, that makes complete sense. [Pause] It sounds like a very organic
process, actually. I wonder if it was 100 percent organic, where you had each step of the resource center being added as you saw the needs of the young people. Or, were you able to base the model of the operating center you have now on any other type of resource center you were aware of that functioned in a similar way in a different part of the country?
RS: Yeah. I think we definitely learned from how other organizations and other
resource centers set up. But then, we made our own [Laughing] way and paved the way for other youth centers now. We often serve as consultants for some resource centers, both locally and nationally. Our director of programs, Erin Casey, is often called upon to offer support. A lot of this has been worked on diligently by her and the team throughout the years, and she is often called upon to support other organizations for some insights on providing a center for youth. It's different from serving adults. I'm sure you can imagine that. There are totally different needs. Obviously, we all have the same physical and emotional needs as well, but youths are still developing. There are still different ways to engage with a young person than there are with an adult.
MB: Yeah, absolutely. [Pause] I mean, that's the way that these programs should
be–you learn these practices from one another and improve on these best practices. That goes for anything I think.
RS: Yeah. You can always learn from each other, right? [Laughing]
MB: Exactly! Yeah, Yeah. Exactly. [Pause] So, My Friend's Place is currently
fundraising for their Safe Haven program. I was wondering if you actually have - since you are fundraising for the program right now - I was wondering if you could tell us a little more about the program. I know it's an entry point for people before they enter more intense care services, but maybe there is more that you can explain.
RS: Yeah. I was actually speaking with someone about this the other day. The Safe
Haven program truly touches every young person that enters through our door. So, every young person, whether they know it or not, is accessing services through the Safe Haven. It's really kind of the foundational support because, as you can imagine, it's difficult to do any future planning, any forward thinking, or anything if you're hungry or perhaps hangry. And, if you haven't had a shower in two weeks or you haven't had a fresh change of clothes, especially underwear and socks, you can imagine it's hard to move past that state of crisis that you are living in when your physical well-being isn't being cared for. So, coming in, being welcomed as you are, being able to get some food and hygiene supplies, taking a shower, and getting some clothing really is important and kind of that foundational support. It also is where a lot of the initial rapport and trust-building starts. It’s being able to have our staff connect with young people while they're just sitting down, eating a meal, or maybe playing a game.
Before Covid, it used to be pretty [Laughing] bumping in the Safe Haven, where there'd be music playing outside and people would be hanging out, and we're starting to get back to that. It's been something we've missed during Covid–that really community-driven environment, where it feels like it's their [Pause] home. It's their living room. It's where they're hanging out, and we're just there to help [Laughing] facilitate any needs that they might have. So, it's really a place where many young people can feel comfortable letting their guards down. Living on the streets, you're always having your guard up and always being watchful. You’re always making sure that you are safe, that your street family is safe, and that your friends are safe. But, in the Safe Haven, it's a safe environment. You can maybe even leave your bag on a chair for a couple minutes and not worry that it'll be gone when you return. You can charge your phone–that's super important. [Laughing] You can know that you have somewhere to go for a couple of hours that's not on the streets somewhere else.
MB: How difficult do you find that trust-building process to be in general?
RS: To be honest, it really depends on the individual. [Laughing]
RS: There's some people who come to us, and they are an open book. They'll
tell everyone everything. There's some people who may be in our care for several months before we know their real name, or their government name. We might just know them by a nickname that they provide us, or we might never know their actual name because whatever name they gave us might not be–[Laughing]. It really depends. There's some young people you can feel that you have a trust relationship with, but that trust relationship is also super fragile. And it could be easily broken as well. Like something that to you may seem super minor might seem super intense and major for them. So yeah, it can be really challenging, but it can also be fairly easy depending on the individual.
MB: That is really interesting. I suppose it goes back to that individualized solution
and that individualized path for everybody.
MB: That’s particularly important. So, I also want to ask, because you know that young
people from a minority group and especially from the LGBTQI+ community are at particularly high-risk of experiencing homelessness or unstable housing. Can you maybe explain why that is or some possible reasons?
RS: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. So, oftentimes, young people who are part of
the LGBTQ+ community are not accepted by their families or friends. I mean, it's truly unfortunate that they are not welcome where they live because of who they are. So, many of them are either [Pause] kicked out, or they leave perhaps an unsafe family or living situation because they are not accepted for who they are. [Pause] While they might have caring, supportive families, they might not feel welcome in their communities and still chose to leave because they know that in, say, Los Angeles there are a lot of people like them, and there is a community here. But, Los Angeles is a very hard city to live in, and many of them wind up experiencing homeless because of a variety of reasons–jobs or sometimes housing is super expensive. So, whatever reasons happen for them. I definitely think a lot of that is tied back to acceptance or lack of acceptance of young people who identify differently than perhaps what is considered the norm for some families and communities. I'm hoping that's changing soon.
For other kinds of minorities, we know that homelessness disproportionately impacts young people of color, particularly black individuals and people that might be latinx or hispanic. And that is due, in large part, to systemic racism and how it's really impacted communities of color and their access to opportunities and resources. It’s really just the way, historically, systems have been put in place to keep those communities oppressed. Due to that, they experience poverty and often homelessness. [Pause] There's so much more to unpack there. [Laughing] I don't want to get into that too deeply, but I'm sure you can understand that is a significant reason as to why many of the young people are experiencing homelessness.
MB: I think that it is a really important topic. I mean, it's a discussion that I think
goes much deeper, and there's a lot to unpack. But, it's important to note that–
RS: You could probably talk for days, months, years about it. [Laughing]
MB: Yeah. Exactly. [Laughing] I think so too. [Pause] The other thing I want to
discuss is that on the My Friend's Place website there's a statistic that says that only 16 percent of unsheltered youth are enrolled in school, and I personally found that to be quite shocking. I wonder if you could also maybe explain in more detail some of the other long-lasting impacts that arise when young people are homeless, even if it's just for a short time.
RS: Being enrolled in school is challenging for a young person experiencing
homelessness. When keeping a schedule and getting to school, many times you might not have been able to sleep the whole night before because you had to stay awake because you didn't feel safe where you were. Imagine trying to get to school like that. Imagine showing up when perhaps you haven't been able to shower for a couple days, or you haven't been able to eat.
So, we serve ages 12-25. I would say the majority accessing services currently are more of the transition-age years. So, the 18-25 end of the range of what we serve. We don't see too many under 16.
But, when you're experiencing homelessness, your whole time schedule and time horizon changes. You're more focused on needing immediate needs, and, oftentimes, school is a lower priority. It’s not quite an immediate need for most of our young people. So, that's a reason why many of them aren't in school.
For housed folks that are out of high school, continuing education for a college level, vocational skills, or something else is challenging because that requires financial commitment to attend a school. There are some young people that work diligently to be able to go into community college or GED programs, and they might have a part-time or full-time job and are still experiencing homelessness. Because in order to get housing, you have to go through a whole system to get supportive housing, and it is very complicated. Even to get a house with any assistance at all, you have to come prepared with your first months, last months, and sometimes even a security deposit. That is a significant chunk of change for someone to have with them in order to secure housing. Even for young people that are able to afford going to school or maybe still working, they still can't afford a place to live.
MB: I suppose that's especially exasperated when you have generational wealth
gaps [and certain–I guess that goes back to certain minority groups. The gap in generational wealth is much lower in majority-white groups.]
RS: For sure. There's not that familial support that generational wealth helps support
to get into your first house or your first job. Even applying for a scholarship is challenging and not knowing where and how to make that happen. There's funds out there for some folks, but how do you get it? You have to have someone who is able to help you with those resources, and many of the young people don't have that.
To answer the second portion of that question, long-lasting impacts are–you touched on it a little bit with the generational wealth, right? So, not just individually, if a person is unable to graduate school or get an education, that impacts their ability to get employment or have an income to get housing. You can see it's a little bit of a domino effect, even if it is a short period of time.
And also, just the [Pause] psychological, physiological, and physical impacts on a person for experiencing homelessness can really have a significant impact on how you move forward on the experiences that you have. Many, and I don't have stats available, young people when they experience homelessness, they experience violence. They are assaulted. There are traumas that they've experienced through their childhood as well. A connecting thread for many young people that we serve is the history of trauma, abuse, or neglect. And whether that abuse is physical, mental, or emotional, that's there too. So, there are long-lasting impacts or effects of experiencing homelessness. Even if it's a short period of time, it definitely sticks with you and impacts how you're able to exist and lead a self-sufficient life.
MB: Yeah. I wonder if you have any advice for a better way to approach discussions
around youth homelessness. Maybe more appropriate language to use when
discussing the issue? My theory would be that to approach the issue of youth homeless requires a different discussion than around adult homelessness.
RS: I think for many folks [Pause] it's a slight change in perceptions. It's a
slight change in language as well. So, when viewing people experiencing homelessness, it is something temporary. It's not who they are. They're not a homeless person. They are a person who is experiencing homelessness. So, you feel like that's a perception change. It can be helpful when talking about homelessness. Recognizing that, yes, for young people and for adults experiencing homelessness, it's often that they have been failed by the systems and by others, and they are not prepared with resources and skill sets to be self-sufficient adults.
So, I think recognizing that and having–I know you mentioned that your community is full of empathetic people, but it’s even continuing to have that empathy and understanding. I saw a news story recently talking about how people are very empathetic to the, quote-unquote, "homeless problem," until it enters their world–like, until there's someone in their neighborhood. I definitely see that happen all the time [Laughing] that people are like, "You're doing really great work, but there is this person who sleeps down the street from me. And I just don't feel safe with them there." [Pause] Instead of thinking of them as, "Ugh, this person over there," it's thinking of them as, "Oh, they are this person." They are still a person. I think oftentimes there's the mindset, particularly in America, of that “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. Or, "This is something you've done wrong.” [Laughing] "That's the reason why you're in this spot." That's just not true. So, I think that in conversations, it’s instead coming from a place of like, "These are people." [Pause] They are people! [Laughing]
Approaching it with kindness and care–that's really the base way. We once had one of our former social workers, when I first started at My Friend's Place, say, "It doesn't take much to be kind." That was her word of advice. And I was like, "Oh, well, I can do that!" It's just keeping that in mind.
Well, you might not be able to always help the individual down the street from your house, but what can you do to help make some bigger changes? And that's working with organizations that are doing the boots-on-the-ground work in whatever capacity that you're able. If you can make a financial contribution, that’s super great! If you can volunteer, that’s also super great! If it's that you are trying to do advocacy work with state, local, or national officials, that’s amazing–please, yes! It’s whatever level you are able, even if it's just smiling at a person experiencing homelessness and recognizing that they exist.
I know that people get frustrated when you're asked for change or food. And you don't have it to give, so you just ignore it when that request comes. Think about how that would feel if you're just constantly ignored and what kind of impact that would have on your psyche as like, "I'm not a person. Do I exist?" It's being able to say, "No, I'm really sorry. I don't, but I hope you have a great day," or something like that.
MB: Yeah, that's important to remember–that kindness is a choice. It's not a
behavioral trait. It is something you can choose to do and be. Like you said, every time you are ignoring these people, that's just one more confirmation. You know, negative thoughts might be running through their head. So, you can choose to be kind. I like that.
RS: Even just a smile! Self-worth is really important, and if people make you feel
like you're not worthy, that human worth–that's one of our core values. If people make you feel like you're not worthy, then you'll start to think that you're not worthy.
MB: Yeah, and it's really important that people have dignity. [Pause] Like you said,
we at USYF, the United States Youth Forum, are a youth-led organization. We want to be empathetic. Like we said, we want to be engaged, and we want to have our worldview opened to what's occurring with this issue, with youth homelessness, and how we can better be engaged with the topic. I want to also ask what we can do specifically to support My Friend's Place and the work that you are doing.
RS: Yeah. Specifically us, low-hanging fruits are just any kind of contribution. If
someone is local to Los Angeles or wants to ship stuff to us, we always need masculine clothing. [Laughing] Always. We always need masculine clothing. As I mentioned, our young people want to look cute and stylish like everybody else. They want new clothing. If you see some of our young people that we serve experiencing homelessness walking down the street, you might not actually recognize them as someone who is experiencing homelessness. That's super intentional, right? They want to blend in. They want to look just like everybody else. Just because they are experiencing homelessness, doesn't mean that they don't want a new pair of shoes, or a gently-used pair of shoes, and new clothing. That's one way that is super easy to support My Friend's Place or also organizations like us. See what their needs are. For us, clothing, hygiene supplies, and snacks are always great.
Obviously, any nonprofit is going to intensely appreciate financial contributions because that's how we exist. We are primarily privately funded. My Friend's Place receives most of our funding from foundations, individuals, corporations, and grants so we are able to provide services that make sense for the young people we serve. We have some public funding and are exploring more public funding opportunities to be able to continue to provide more services and more robust services for the youth. But, we are very careful and structured in how we approach public funding. We want to be able to serve young people in the way that makes sense for them, and we are not trying to fit some sort of government-mandated program in order to get funding. Not that there isn't space for that, but for us, as an organization, we want to make sure we're structuring ourselves a little bit differently.
So, I think that those are two great ways. But also, just start conversations with your own community, friends, family, and coworkers. If you hear someone talking disparagingly about someone experiencing homeless, try and use that as a window of opportunity to talk about why someone could be experiencing homelessness. Oftentimes, misperceptions and misconceptions of young people experiencing homelessness are that they're runaway drug addicts. Right? [Pause]
MB: Oh, wow.
RS: That's oftentimes what people think. Yeah, they might be runaways, but what
are they running from? Yes, they might use substances, whether that's drugs or alcohol, but what is the reason for that coping mechanism? What is the underlying issue for that addiction? Is it an addiction or is it just something that numbs the pain and the feelings that they have when someone experiences trauma, homelessness, and is in a high state of crisis all the time? There's a bit more behind those things to think about.
[Pause] Good ways to support us are helping us to continue to fulfill the mission statement of assisting them and inspiring homeless youth to build self-sufficient lives. [Laughing]
MB: Maybe, by the end, I'll also have it memorized as well! [Laughing]
RS: Yeah! [Laughing]
MB: Well, thank you so much, Rachel, for joining me today and talking about My
Friend's Place and the work you do about youth homelessness in general. I really appreciate it, and I personally really appreciate the work My Friend's Place does. I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about what you're doing and the issue in general.
RS: Thank you so much! I really appreciate your efforts in educating younger
people on this issue. Really, I am hopeful and excited by the leaders that are
up-and-coming now. I feel like change is coming, and I am excited for it. Not that I'm old, [Laughing] but I'm older than you and perhaps the people you'll be working with as well. But, I'm super appreciative and inspired by your commitment. So, thank you.
MB. Thank you so much.