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Settings That Serve Youth Enduring Homelessness, Unstable Housing, or Human Trafficking

Tailored experience for youth-serving professionals in settings that serve youth enduring homelessness, unstable housing, or human trafficking

Reaching Teens Portal for Settings That Serve Youth Enduring Homelessness, Unstable Housing, or Human Trafficking

David B. Howard, MSW, Ph.D.

Senior Vice President—Research, Evaluation &
Learning, Covenant House International

Alieizoria Redd, Ph.D., LCSW

Executive Director, Covenant House Georgia, Inc.


Homelessness and the many forms of related exploitation, including human trafficking, reflect traumatic experiences in a young person’s life, but these adversities do not define the young people who have endured these awful hardships. These youth have been stripped of their most basic and fundamental needs: safety, security, a roof over their head, and loving, nurturing, and supportive relationships. Even so, young people who have experienced extreme turmoil have tremendous potential and aspirations. They possess not only the ability to succeed in the face of adversity and realize the great promise of their lives, but also the capacity for incredible compassion and empathy.

In this portal, we have identified those chapters in Reaching Teens that will most directly inform agencies and staff working with young people experiencing homelessness, housing instability, and human trafficking. We have crafted a tailored learning pathway that seeks to provide foundational knowledge, deeper exploration, and opportunities for personal reflection and group learning and discussion.

Experiencing homelessness, whether having literally lived on the streets, in other places not meant for habitation (sometimes for months or years), or having hopped from couch to couch without a stable home, would be traumatic for anyone. The same can be said for being sexually exploited, commercially or otherwise. Similarly, the life experiences that commonly lead up to or that are directly associated with homelessnessness or human trafficking—family rejection, extreme poverty, domestic violence, mental-health challenges, substance use, systems involvement, etc.—also represent forms of traumatic adversity.

As professionals serving youth who have faced these experiences, it’s critical that we acknowledge the impact of such trauma on a young person’s development and understand the behavioral manifestations and coping mechanisms that often accompany such life experiences. Our engagement strategies must balance this acknowledgment of trauma with a focus on strengths, resilience, efforts to give control back to youth from whom it’s been taken away, and having expectations that motivate youth to strive.

Our job as youth-serving professionals is to disallow the youth’s experiences, or the behaviors they’ve needed to rely on, to define the youth we serve. Young people often come to us with a long list of diagnoses—professional labels that unfairly affect how young people see themselves and how others see them. We must help young people shed the labels and the residual shame and stigma associated with their lived experiences.

Through a strength-based orientation, we can literally help to rewire a young person’s brain. This is not a metaphorical exercise. These opportunities are squarely grounded in brain science. Through positive and motivational interactions, we can help them recognize and celebrate their inner strength and resilience, even if those positive traits have become buried beneath tough or weathered exteriors.

We should challenge ourselves as individuals—and our organizations more broadly—to find a healthy balance between rule enforcement and the traditionally structured approaches that have defined homeless services for decades. We need to promote and support trauma-sensitive practices that allow youth appropriate space for second and third (and beyond) chances that often characterize adolescent development.

Let us adopt these learnings as an expression of unconditional love and absolute respect for young people who most need and deserve the care and support that you and your teams provide. Let us express this love by seeing young people for who they really are, the way they deserve to be seen, and not to judge them for the behaviors and coping strategies they might have displayed. We must ensure we are serving and engaging youth in ways that both convey and lift up dignity and self-worth.

The youth we serve are good and we can help young people to recognize the goodness within themselves. They deserve absolute respect. They deserve unconditional love. Let’s do our part to deliver these blessings in support of and in partnership with young people.

Leadership Committed to Supporting A Strength-Based Approach to Care

These chapters are designed to help leadership grasp the philosophical and practical underpinnings of a strength-based approach to working with young people who have experienced homelessness, housing instability, or human trafficking. While all staff members can certainly read these selections, these chapters do not benefit as much from the group process of practice sessions, feedback, and reflection. Therefore, they are recommended for leadership teams who will set the tone of the intervention.

Setting the tone here is critical. Many of us work, nearly by definition, in crisis. Shifting to a strength-based approach is about prevention. It is about making things run more smoothly, preventing disruption, employing more effective interventions, achieving better outcomes, and ensuring long-term impact. It is about having adults who work with youth deserving of our most-focused attention becoming the kind of people that youth need and deserve in their lives. This means it is an investment that will pay off in ways that are sometimes immeasurable and intangible. On any given moment, it might feel like it makes more sense to focus professional development sessions on crisis intervention (e.g., de-escalation, etc.) or punitive—even controlling—measures. People operating in crisis may not feel the logic behind intensive preventive work. It is for leadership to set the tone that reinforces the need for each staff member to stay committed to preventive work.

Leadership can also create reflective opportunities for staff to debrief with others about how their interactions change with youth once they implement strength-based strategies. Listening to young people, recognizing them as experts in their own lives, and addressing risk behaviors by building on their existing strengths are all methods that will create palpable differences in relationships. For this approach to take hold, people need opportunity to reflect on, and share, those differences.

Section 1: Orientation to a Strength Based Approach
  • In “Creating Healthy Biocratic Organizations,” (Chapter 92) Dr. Sandy Bloom, author of multiple books on the subject, speaks to those organizational structures and processes that can be healthy or unhealthy. Without the scaffolding of healthy organizations, none of us can reach our potential to serve others while remaining whole ourselves.

Orientation to New Staff

There are certain critical skills staff need prior to interacting with our young people, because inappropriate interactions can cause harm to youth who have endured hardships in their lives. Our ability to help them develop self-regulation skills or avoid triggering their well-earned reactivity is tightly linked to our calming presence. Chaos, instability, crisis: these conditions may define the experiences of homelessness or exploitation, but they don't define the young people who have endured these hardships. A strength-based approach can help young people heal, regain control in their lives, tap into their inherent resilience, and begin to shed the shame and stigma attached to their experiences.

Working well with our young people requires skillsets to be developed over time. However, for new staff to begin interacting with young people, they need to understand the strength-based approach and deeply respect the care our young people deserve. They also have to understand the critical importance of well-defined boundaries and interactions that support youth to become their best selves without staff engaging in rescue fantasies.

We recommend the following chapters for all staff as orientation to our practices. They can be read by individuals who engage with the material in a self-reflective manner. Ultimately, these topics should be revisited in ongoing professional development sessions with their colleagues.

Core Ongoing Professional Development for Staff

Organizations that serve youth who have endured profound hardship need to develop staff with very specific skillsets. Rather than viewing these skillsets as adequately represented by one chapter, it is important to know that many different ideas and strategies, together, build the skillset. Further, a skillset requires reflection and practice. It also requires safe and constructive feedback from colleagues. Although this practice and feedback among colleagues can at first feel uncomfortable, we need to build agencies where it is indoctrinated into the organizational culture and seen as a supportive, safe environment to do so. When staff develop their skillsets in the safe setting of practice with colleagues, it allows the interactions that really matter—those with youth—to proceed more smoothly.

Staff can certainly navigate the chapters on their own. However, remember this is designed to be a toolkit. People organizing professional-development sessions can draw key elements or films from different chapters. They can also decide how many sessions to devote to each skillset. Further, the units or skillsets do not need to be presented sequentially. It is expected that most agencies will work on various units simultaneously, perhaps drawing from Unit “A” on odd weeks of professional-development time and Unit “B” on even weeks. We suggest to you the units and you decide which skillsets your agency would most benefit from.

You will note that many of the chapters are found in more than one unit. That is intentional, as these are chapters that contribute to different skillsets and are worth revisiting. Each time they are revisited, they will be reinforced with less investment of time. Further, as you look at these units, you’ll notice that there is overlap among them. They, however, are framed differently and you can choose which angle better fits your organizational culture. Specifically, there is a great deal of overlap between “Helping Young People Learn Self-Regulation Both to Calm Their Minds and to Improve their Behavior” and “Maintaining Your Cool Amidst Chaos So You Can Better Co-regulate with Youth and Settle their Behaviors.” Similarly, there is a lot of overlap between “Creating Effective Professional Boundaries” and “Preventing Professional Burnout.” This should not be surprising since effective boundaries are protective both to youth and staff well-being.

The chapter on “Serving Youth Who Are Experiencing Homelessness or Are Unstably Housed” is written for other settings to consider how to support our youth. It is likely too basic for your purposes. However, you might find the section on “The Life Cycle of Youth Homelessness” informative on key points of outreach intervention. It also may be useful if you are orienting new staff with no prior experience with our population.


Resources to Access on an As-Needed Basis

The following chapters can be of great use to those of us who serve youth enduring homelessness, unstable housing, human trafficking, or other forms of exploitation.

In particular, if you do not have extensive experience with youth who are LGBTQ+, it is imperative that you familiarize yourself with respectful, dignified, and non-judgmental service to them. Those chapters feature young people telling you what they need. Youth who are LGBTQ+ are overrepresented among our youth, and our full acceptance and absolute respect, not just tolerance of them, is critical to them.

Young people experiencing a range of behavioral health challenges may present with unique needs, as is the case for young people who have been involved with various systems (e.g., criminal justice, foster care, etc.).

All chapters in this grouping can be accessed on an as-needed basis. Explanations are offered only for those chapters whose titles are not self-explanatory.

Section 9: Mental, Emotional. And Behavioral Health
Section 10: Serving Young People Deserving of Focused Attention

Case Examples for Group Learning and Discussion/Personal Reflection

Each chapter offers group learning and discussion and/or personal reflection exercises to help develop specific skill sets. Knowing the broader context of young people's lives makes the difference in our ability to build on their strengths and support them to overcome their challenges. This is so central to our work that we should routinely consider youths' environmental contexts, strengths, and challenges as a first step to addressing any issue. Rather than having you need to go through this process with new youth in each chapter, we want you to be able to focus on the chapter-specific skill-set. Therefore, we suggest you get to know the youth described below and use them as consistent case examples. You may choose instead to substitute in actual cases if it helps you and your colleagues better learn the material.


  • Age: 19
  • Gender: Cisgender Female
  • Race/Ethnicity: African-American

Bridgette was placed for adoption as an infant when her 16-year-old mother was experiencing homelessness and had been engaging in survival sex. When Bridgette was 10 years-old, she was molested by a 14-year-old boy in her neighborhood, and her sister was molested by the man her adopted mother married. The two girls were also verbally abused by their mother at times. Bridgette became very depressed, and was often scared to go home because she feared her step-dad would assault her. Her mother never did anything about it, even after she and her sister told her what was going on.

When Bridgette turned 18 years old, she found a job and moved out of the house the first chance she got. She thought things would get better, but she was still depressed (even if she didn’t realize it). She felt nobody loved her, like she had no family and no purpose in life. Eventually, she didn’t want to get out of bed, was crying all the time, and had suicidal thoughts. One day of missing work turned into weeks and so on. Finally, she became so tired of living that she went onto a busy road and tried to let a car hit her. She was admitted to an inpatient mental facility. When she was released, she lost her job and her apartment. She even had to give her dog up as well. She had nowhere to go and so went to the local youth shelter.

Strengths: Bridgette has shown that she has the ability to live independently and take care of herself (and care for her dog). Despite adversity in her early childhood, she was committed to finding a better life and was able to escape an abusive household. Despite the abuse, homelessness, behavioral-health challenges, and losses, Bridgette possesses determination and hope for a brighter future. Instead of allowing trauma and depression to overtake her mental stability, Bridgette listened to her voice of hope and mustered up the strength to seek help.

Challenges: Bridgette struggles with severe depression that can be crippling. She has a low sense of self-worth and is prone to suicidal ideation. She lacks a supportive family network that can provide consistent and reliable care and protection.


  • Age: 17
  • Gender: Cisgender Male
  • Race/Ethnicity: Latino

Daniel was born to immigrant parents and grew up in a low-income household. He was the oldest of five children, although he rarely felt acknowledged for being the eldest sibling. In fact, he rarely remembered ever being told that he was loved throughout his childhood, which caused him to feel a lot of confusion, anxiety, and depression. Daniel’s family experienced homelessness for several years during his childhood. They moved from shelter to shelter, lived in their car at times, and struggled to pay for food. Housing instability frequently interrupted Daniel’s primary education, but he was able to graduate from high school. Although he didn’t have a relationship with his biological father because he wasn’t around, he did have a strong bond with his grandmother, who showed care and concern for him.

During high school, Daniel was always able to find part-time employment. As a result, Daniel’s mother relied on him to help the family financially. When he was unable to maintain steady work, it created tension in the home. When Daniel came out as gay to his mother, she disapproved, and forced him to leave. He was able to couch-surf briefly, but he soon wound up homeless and in need of shelter.

Strengths: Despite his tumultuous childhood, Daniel was able to perform well in school and found consistent employment. He was able to find some familial support in his grandmother. He is ambitious and has the desire to care for others. He is active in the LGBTQ+ community, offering peer mentoring to other Latino youth who are coming out.

Challenges: Over time, Daniel has developed a low sense of self-worth, in part due to lack of nurturing. He is prone to depression and anxiety, which can make it hard for him to remain motivated so he can focus on attaining his goals. He wants to finish high school, but the roadblocks are making it difficult.


  • Age: 18
  • Gender: Cisgender Female
  • Race/Ethnicity: Caucasian

Jennifer started to experience homelesness at a young age, living in a car with her mom and three siblings—an older brother, younger brother, and younger sister. Her estranged father eventually took custody of Jennifer and her siblings and moved them out of state. Her step-mother gave her father an ultimatum: to choose her or his children. Her father chose to give up his kids, who were then scattered among various group homes. Jennifer was 10 years-old when she was separated from her family. She was angry, alone, and refused any form of counseling at the time.

When Jennifer turned 18, she aged out of foster care, and moved in with her boyfriend and her brother. She had no money, and started selling drugs to make ends meet. Her brother found out and eventually kicked her out of the house, and she went to stay with an old friend. Her so-called friend ultimately drugged and raped her. Jennifer moved to another city and continued to sell drugs. She experienced another sexual assault, causing her to find yet another group of people to live with. She started dating someone and soon became pregnant. Her boyfriend pressured her to get an abortion or give the baby up for adoption. She decided to keep the baby, even while her relationship with the father ended. Despite the love for her unborn child, her situation brought upon severe PTSD and frequent nightmares and flashbacks because of her assaults. She had nowhere to turn to. Feeling hopeless and having exhausted other options, she decided to accept help and went to her local shelter.

Strengths: Jennifer is resourceful and empowered to reach out for support. She is accepting of a brighter future for herself. In a short time, Jennifer was able to develop friendships with other residents, and other youth frequently seek her guidance and support. Despite her current challenges, she is excited for the birth of her child.

Challenges: Jennifer has experienced separation from her siblings and has lost family connections, which have adversely impacted her ability to make informed, objective decisions about engaging in illegal activity, which has put her future at risk. She wasn’t able to complete high school and hasn’t yet earned her high school equivalency, which is a sensitive topic for her (and acts as a roadblock to employment). Now she will need to balance childcare needs with her educational pursuits.


  • Age: 20
  • Gender: Cisgender Female
  • Race/Ethnicity: Native-American

Jasmine grew up in a single-parent household. Her father was never around (she only met him once). Her mother struggled with alcohol addiction and suffered from severe asthma. During asthma attacks, her mother would not seek medical help, and would tell Jasmine to hold and comfort her. Most of her childhood was spent taking care of her mom and nephew.

While in high school, Jasmine missed school frequently in order to look after her nephew because her sister, the nephew’s mother, was in jail and her mother had to work. She dropped out of high school, but did earn her GED and enrolled in college out of state. She was doing well in college and earning good grades, but after the death of her grandmother she moved back home to support her mother and be closer to her family. Her mother was in and out of the hospital and ended up losing her job. Jasmine was unable to re-enroll in school.

Unable to find steady work, she went to live with a friend out of state who offered to give her a place to stay and help her find work. She didn’t realize her friend was using drugs and selling sex. Jasmine became caught up in a criminal sex-trafficking ring, and in time found herself living on the streets. With nowhere to live, she searched online and found a local shelter.

Strengths: Jasmine is a natural care-taker, and assumed responsibility for supporting and caring for others since she was very young. She is intelligent and has proven that; despite distraction and hardship, she was able to succeed in school. She is loyal to her family and made sacrifices to help them. Jasmine is a survivor of homelessness and sexual exploitation, and managed to find help. She takes great pride in herself knowing that she never turned to drug use or other harmful coping behaviors to overcome hardships. Jasmine is also very proud of her Native American heritage.

Challenges: Jasmine has not experienced a true loving and caring relationship. From a young age, she was forced to be the caregiver, and that has become her tendency. Over the years, she has become wired to be a “giver,” and has not been accustomed to receiving healthy affection. She has experienced trauma through unresolved family loss as well as living on the streets and experiencing exploitation. Those experiences have caused depressive symptoms, which despite success in academics has made it hard for her to see a bright future for herself.


  • Age: 19
  • Gender: Cisgender Male
  • Race: Caucasian

When James was three years-old, he and his siblings were taken away from their biological mother after an incident in which they were left home unsupervised. His mother failed to show up for their court hearings, and he and his siblings were placed in different foster homes. Eventually, because he was the youngest, James was adopted by his aunt and uncle. He began calling them “mom and dad,” and considered their two children to be his siblings.

By age 10, James was being physically abused by his uncle, who would throw water on him at night to keep him awake, or throw things at him during arguments. He became depressed and felt like he didn’t have a true family. He was frequently acting out in school and getting in trouble. When he was 11, he went to a summer camp out of state, and was sexually molested by his 16-year-old roommate. With nobody to confide in, he didn’t disclose the abuse. He was deeply ashamed. When he went back to live with Aunt and Uncle, the physical abuse continued. Eventually, he ran away to a crisis shelter to seek another foster placement. He remained in foster care until 18, at which point he aged out and had nowhere to go. He was working part-time and managed to finish high school, but was now living on the streets. With nobody to turn to, he sought help at a local shelter.

Strengths: James is a compassionate individual who displays great empathy for others. Despite dealing with bouts of depression, he is outgoing at times and has a great sense of humor. James has leveraged his academic abilities by volunteering to help other youth prepare for their high school equivalency exam.

Challenges: James has experienced physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as a lack of family support and love. In addition, James has had Type 1 Diabetes since early childhood, and has struggled with other medical issues. Although his outgoing personality is usually displayed in a positive way, he does sometimes have outbursts of anger

Christopher aka “Chrissy”

  • Age: 22
  • Gender: Gender-fluid
  • Race: Caucasian

Chrissy (named Christopher at birth) began showing signs of gender fluidity at a very young age. In response, their father would allow them to dress in feminine clothing and adorn their hair with ribbons. Chrissy’s mother did not approve, which created strained relationships in the home. When Chrissy’s father passed away when they were 12, their mother became much more verbally abusive. Chrissy turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the constant abuse, and ran away from home at 17.

Chrissy began shoplifting alcohol and cigarettes and used substances to cope with depression and anxiety. They had no place to call home, and would go days without eating. Chrissy developed severe alcoholism and became addicted to methamphetamines. Chrissy was often exploited for sex in exchange for food, shelter, and drugs.

Chrissy was living in an encampment and was visited by an outreach worker, with whom they began to confide over several visits. Eventually, Chrissy decided to seek residential services at the local shelter and agreed to undergo treatment for their substance abuse.

Strengths: Chrissy possesses a strong innate ability to overcome hardship and is a survivor. They display compassion for others and have a willingness to accept unconditional love. They were able to successfully complete substance abuse treatment, and are interested in pursuing a career path in technology.

Challenges: Chrissy does not have a support system outside of the shelter and treatment facility. They do not have contact with their mother nor do they have any close friends. They have a long history of complex trauma and struggle with depression, anxiety, and PTSD.


  • Age: 16
  • Gender: Cisgender Male
  • Race: African-American

Gary was raised by loving grandparents after his parents were killed in a car crash when he was a toddler. His grandfather died from complications of diabetes when Gary was 10 years-old, and his grandmother struggled financially. Despite the financial struggles, she was a centerpiece of the local community, a pillar in her church, and fostered several youth over the years. Gary enjoyed and took pride in helping to take care of the younger children whom his grandmother fostered. His grandmother suffered a stroke a year ago, and Gary dropped out of high school to care for her until her death two months ago. With no other family to take them in, the children separated. The younger children were placed with another foster family, and Gary wound up at a youth shelter. He is experiencing deep grief over the loss of his family.

Strengths: Gary is a kind and compassionate young man, and has been focused on his treatment-plan goals, which address his depression, grief and loss, and separation anxiety. He is interested in re-enrolling in and completing high school, and has begun to explore options for college.

Challenges: Although Gary hasn’t had any negative interactions with staff or other youth, he has been hesitant to open up about his grief. He sometimes isolates himself from others as well.

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