Through Employment, Larkin Street Helps Youth “Get off the Street for Good”
By Caitlin C. Schnur, Coordinator, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity
In preparation for an upcoming best practice guide on employment services for youth, we’ve spent the past few weeks in conversation with practitioners and program administrators in the field to gather and lift up their expertise in helping at-risk young job seekers succeed in employment. Recently, we sat down with Jamie Fountain, Associate Director of Workforce Development at Larkin Street Youth Services. Located in San Francisco, Larkin Street got its start in the 1980s serving bagged lunches to youth experiencing homelessness in San Francisco’s Polk Gulch neighborhood. Today, Larkin Street has 25 programs across 14 program sites and offers youth experiencing and at-risk of homelessness a comprehensive set of services including housing, medical care, and education and employment services via Larkin’s Hire Up program. While in Hire Up, youth can receive job readiness training, learn computer and technology skills, earn wages as part of supervised, entry-level work crew, and participate in paid internships with local businesses and organizations.
Larkin Street recognizes that youth’s success in employment is critical to its mission to “help kids get off the street for good.” In this conversation, Jamie talks about how “failure” yields innovation, the power of supportive relationships in helping youth get and keep jobs, and why it’s important to celebrate success along the journey to sustainable employment.
National Initiatives: Many programs serving youth recognize that change is a process; for example, enacting and maintaining positive behavior change such as getting and keeping job occurs over time and can involve setbacks. How does this theory of change play out in Larkin Street’s service delivery?
Jamie Fountain: In many ways, recognition of change theory plays out across Larkin Street’s service delivery. The majority of our youth arrive at Larkin Street in the “pre-contemplation” stage of change—they’re not necessarily aware that they’ll need to change their behaviors in order to get and stay off the street, nor do they intend to make those behavior changes in the foreseeable future. It’s exceptionally important to meet the youth where they are—and given where our youth usually are when they arrive at Larkin Street, we believe extended engagement is critical to their success. A year just isn’t enough time to engage our youth and turn their lives around; it’s a three to four year journey to take our youth from living on the street to being gainfully employed and housed.
I’d also say that offering our youth (and our staff!) multiple chances to “mess up” and try again is part of how recognition of change theory infuses our work. Staff should expect “failure” from the youth—perhaps repeatedly. In some cases, we’ll ask youth to leave our programming, but the door is always open for them to return. We see mistakes as a learning opportunity. In order to be innovative and move forward, people need to be able to take risks, mess up, and learn from them. That’s true both in your personal and professional life.
National Initiatives: What role do supportive staff relationships play in helping Larkin Street’s youth succeed in employment?
Jamie Fountain: In order for our youth to be successful in employment, it’s essential that our staff build strong relationships with them. When I first arrived at Larkin Street, I asked our workforce development team to tell me what they thought their role was, and they told me it was to help youth get jobs. That’s when I said, ‘No, your job is build relationships with the youth so that they can get jobs on their own.’
I’d also add that it’s essential for staff to be youth-focused and, again, meet the youth where they are, not where the staff member wants them to be. For example, a staff member may pour hours of time into helping a young person get a job, and then that young person will never show up for work! Successful staff will recognize that the young person is going as far as they want to go at that time. It’s about finding out how to get them to go a little further next time, and that involves building a strong and trusting relationship with them.
National Initiatives: Employment programs serving youth with barriers may struggle to place their young job seekers successfully with external employer partners. How do you encourage employers to hire Larkin Street’s youth?
Jamie Fountain: The youth that we serve have value to employers, but they also have baggage—and an employer partner needs to know that. When I place one of our youth with an external employer for either a paid internship or an unsubsidized job, I train that employer’s staff so that everyone is on the same page, has realistic expectations for the youth, and is prepared to handle situations that might arise in the workplace. For example, many of the youth we serve at Larkin Street have experienced trauma, and some of our youth have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s possible that a situation in the workplace could trigger a trauma response in the youth, and employer staff should know that this might happen and how to handle it if it does. At the end of the day, we want to make sure that the young person’s experience with the employer is positive—and vice versa. Although we do recognize that our primary clients are the youth we serve, we definitely remind employers what we’ve got their back and that they can and should be in touch with us if the need arises.
National Initiatives: How do you keep youth motivated, engaged, and ready to take on the next employment-related challenge?
Jamie Fountain: It’s important to acknowledge milestones and recognize and reward success. When our youth successfully finish a section of programming, they get a special graduation that includes a gift, a certificate of completion, and a guest speaker. I think that these types of ceremonies that celebrate success open up a space where youth may start to think, ‘Okay, I’ve done this so far—what’s next?’
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