Youth Services of Tulsa Helping Young Homeless

Associate Editor

AT THEIR SERVICE: Staff member Bryan Johnson takes inventory of the contents of the YST street outreach van equipped to provide many essentials not always available to homeless youth living on the street.


It’s hard for most Tulsans to believe that any day on the streets of Tulsa live an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 underage homeless youths, but it’s true. Ask Bryan Johnson, Blake Sanderson and Laura Hassell. They spend long hours everyday searching under bridges and other nooks and crannies throughout the city for homeless youth in an attempt to connect with them, provide life essentials and offer assistance if needed. It is all part of the Youth Services of Tulsa (YST) Street Outreach Program initiated to address a serious community need that few are aware of or understand.

What circumstances put young teens on the street to live a life on the edge of danger and impoverishment? According to the implementers of the YST program, the street is almost always preferable to their life at home. Emotional, physical or sexual abuse by family members is frequently the driving force, but neglect and abandonment is also a big factor. Parental drug abuse is often involved forcing young people to fend for themselves.

Not all fall into the same category. Many of the youth are designated as couch kids. These are homeless youth who crash on a friends couch for as long as they are welcome and then move on to the next willing friend’s house. Some continue to attend school while moving from house to house. A surprising number have been diagnosed with mental disorders ranging from depression to schizophrenia. Many are transient youth who arrive by boxcar or hitchhike from city to city. These youth usually form traveling bands for security against older homeless adults. They are also very resourceful using Internet e-mail in public libraries to stay in touch with fellow travelers. This is the way they get the word out on safe youth shelters, job availability and warnings of problem areas in cities. Passing along information to one another is one of the unwritten rules embraced by homeless youth. In an urban environment fraught with many dangers looking out for each other is essential to survival for a youth subculture that has severed ties with adult authority and security.

Many homeless youth see employment as a temporary necessity. They seek jobs behind the scenes at fairs, dishwashing, temp labor or any cash paying jobs not requiring a long-term commitment. They are constantly faced with the conflict of meeting life necessities while maintaining the freedom to pick up and move on.

For obvious reasons most of the youth are untrusting of any adult authority figure, consequently it difficult for anyone not part of their community to develop rapport with these very guarded individuals. According to Johnson, “These young people trust only each other and that’s about it. We have learned over time how to approach them. We gain their trust by demonstrating up front we’re not out to save them or change their lifestyle. We provide them with unconditional help and support and let them know we are available to help if they need us. But they have to initiate a request for help. We can’t force it. They need that kind of control over their lives. It’s the only way we can eventually connect with and help them find a more stable life style. On the other hand we know realistically some of them will never take that path.”

YST recently refurbished a small building in downtown as a “drop in center” for youth living on the street. It provides beds, bathing facilities, clothing, laundry facilities, computers hooked up to the Internet and a safe haven for transient youth to drop in and recharge. Modeled after youth shelters in other cities, the facility takes its place among a network of shelters across the country dedicated to homeless youth. These facilities, when managed properly, provide the best window of opportunity for dedicated adults to interact with young people who are adrift, to build trust with them and hopefully steer them in a direction more conducive to a productive life.

“It is wrong to label these young people as dropouts. They are victims of life circumstances beyond their control. Many of them can be saved, but it takes understanding and commitment by the community to begin undoing the damage inflicted on these youths. We firmly believe they are all worth the effort,” says Jim Walker, Executive Director of YST.

About Youth Services of Tulsa

In 1969 Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries supported the creation of YST to match caring adults with youth who needed help with problems as a part of a delinquency prevention project by the Oklahoma Crime Commission. Thus, Youth Services of Tulsa (YST) was incorporated as a private, nonprofit 501©(3) agency.

Through the School Outreach Program, YST places counselors in targeted schools in Tulsa County.

YST began a formal counseling program to help youth and families resolve issues that might lead to problems with juvenile delinquency. The YST adolescent emergency shelter opened to provide a 24-hour professionally staffed temporary residence for youth with no safe place to stay.

Updated 01-02-2007

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