Teens find housing, support through A Step ForwardQ&A with Jenny Poma: Nonprofit Journal Project

Lighthouse provides a wide array of direct services and programs for individuals experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness in Oakland County, including robust programming for runaway and homeless youths. Lighthouse Chief Operating Officer Jenny Poma explains how A Step Forward helps to transition homeless youth toward self-sufficiency. 

What does Lighthouse offer?

Lighthouse offer access to emergency services, basic needs like shelter, housing, food, and clothing, as well as affordable housing development, financial skills — a whole continuum of services all designed around helping uplift people out of poverty.

In February, Lighthouse assumed leadership of three runaway and homeless youth programs previously operated by Common Ground. What do you see as the future for these programs?

We acquired these programs that have a long history in our community, and now they’re under the purview of Lighthouse. We've been given the gift of being able to operate these programs for three years. Right now, we’re assessing each program, learning what the building on Hendrie in Royal Oak that houses two of the programs needs, and whether or not that home will serve us long term. I think that's the biggest challenge right now, because it’s a residential setting. We will be determining where can we house these kids in a safe and supportive environment long term.

How does A Step Forward work?

A Step Forward is a very niche program specifically for young adults, ages 16 to 18, who are in need of housing. It's an 18-month residential program where about seven youth at any given time are housed. They're connected with social workers, counselors, and case managers in an on-site facility in order to assist them in gaining the life skills and financial security needed to live independently. We provide them with housing, we assist them in their meal preparation, finding employment, and securing education. We tailor individual plans to the youth in order to hopefully get them to graduate that program into more independent living.

What’s a day in the life at A Step Forward like?

It's a really homelike environment. There's a big living room lounge area, there's a shared dining space, and a shared kitchen, where the staff and clients work alongside each other to prepare meals and swap recipes and cooking tips. It's cliché, but the kitchen is the heart of a home, and that's definitely the case at this location. That's where a lot of conversations happen, a lot of rapport-building happens, and of course, a lot of life skills happen in the kitchen as well.

They have individual private sleeping areas. Same genders can share a room, but they don't have to. We do find that sharing a room helps people build connection. Largely what we do is help these youth develop their support systems; their independent support systems, but also those rooted within the community.

Three times a week our counselors work with the youth. It's not a requirement; you do not have to participate. But those that do really find value in it. There's individual counseling once a week, group counseling twice a week, and then if the families are engaged, we try to do family counseling once a week.

Most of what we provide on-site is light-touch. All of our staff are trained on how to help the youth do a job search, interview skills, or write a cover letter and a résumé. Anything more in-depth we refer out to local social service agencies or other job training programs. Our staff are connecting, making sure those connections are happening, and advocating for the youth when needed.

What are some common misconceptions about homeless and runaway youth?

That they're problem kids. That they're a product of their own choices. A lot of them are coming to us because it's either unsafe for them to be at home, or their parents have kicked them out. They're a product of their environment, and whatever issues they are experiencing, the root cause is larger than just them.

A lot of these kids want independence, but they’re craving that autonomy in a responsible way. They understand that reunification with family oftentimes is not the goal. Sometimes it is, but oftentimes it's not. They know this is a long-term journey for them and are looking for those long-term supports to be healthy individuals and healthy adults. They're way more capable than a lot of people give them credit for. Our job is to recognize that, honor that, and then help fill in the gaps of the skills that they might be lacking.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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