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Many years ago, I started my human service career as a Youth Street Outreach worker sent by Vista to the East Coast. I therefore have a great appreciation both of the need for and the value of a program like our YO! program in Waikiki which is a collaboration between Hale Kipa and Waikiki Health. For YO! serves as a critical resource for those we serve who are identified as runaway, homeless and street-identified youth and young adults. YO! represents a form of a “safe place or zone,” something that has been discussed recently with regard to the homeless and houseless population in general.

The intent of YO! is to provide a connecting point or safe harbor for youth who are currently on the streets. That comes from two primary YO! activities. One is from the work of the street outreach workers who are out interacting with and working with the youth in the evening on the streets in Waikiki or in fact wherever they are currently living.  It is important that the young people who are on the streets have a clear means of access to services, since many if not most of them have too often been let down by adults in their life whether in terms of having been victims of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse in their families, failed placements in child welfare or with other state agencies, or any one of a number of challenges that bring youth to the streets.

Street outreach provides us with a presence on the street and assists us in staying connected to and involved youth because we are accessible and available as resources while providing them with basic necessities while they are on the street. That in turn allows us to offer them the opportunity to come to our drop in. Drop in is offered four days a week and provides an opportunity for shower, a hot meal, healthcare, the opportunity to work on a GED or for us to do some case management. But at a minimum, drop-in is simply a safe quiet place with a hot shower which is something that is valuable when you live on the streets.

While YO! serves a large number of youth every year, because of the nature of its work, there is not an easy way to know when we have been successful. While there are obviously a few “classic success stories”, the vast majority of the youth that we encounter through YO! are at the point in their life where once they are no longer on the streets, we often have no idea what happened to them. That makes the folks that are working in that program a very special group of people because on any given night they have no idea if the youth that they have seen in the drop-in or while doing outreach will be safe since the streets can be a dangerous place.

YO! is a critical lifeline for many of the street involved youth and young adults. It is a sanctuary that offers them an opportunity to find a way off the streets if they choose, and to provide them at least some support while they are out there. And our goal is always to develop the kind of connection that will ultimately allow that young person to make the decision that they no longer want to live on the streets and would prefer to find a way to reintegrate back into the community.

Sadly, although we believe that YO! is a vital component of the service array for runaway, homeless and street identified youth and young adults, funding for these critical services does not reflect that priority. In fact YO! has instead historically had rather tenuous and limited funding cobbled together by Hale Kipa and Waikiki Health from a number of sources. But the collaboration is committed to developing more consistent predictable adequate funding for YO! to allow us to offer a continuum of services that align with best practices for this vulnerable population. From a fiscal perspective, failure to invest in a program like YO! is classically “penny wise and pound foolish”.  For the longer these youth and young adults are on the streets, the more expensive it will be when they inevitably access the much more intensive and expensive services that they may well eventually need when they finally stop living on the streets. And if they do not, they will simply become another of the adult homeless population which is a tragic waste of human potential and a potential financial burden to the community.