NAYA Homeless Youth Program Changes Lives

NAYA Homeless Youth Program Changes Lives

NAYA is part of the Homeless Youth Continuum in Multnomah County that also includes JANUS Youth Programs, Outside In, and New Avenues for Youth. NAYA’s Homeless Youth Program currently works with over 100 youth, ages 16 to 24, experiencing homelessness and housing instability.

The program follows a housing-first, trauma-informed service model, providing stable supports around housing and other basic human needs like food, hygiene, childcare, and connection to culture. This model is especially culturally appropriate for Native youth, most of whom come to NAYA in crisis. Up to two-thirds of program participants are young parents, half may struggle with substance abuse issues, and almost all have been victims of domestic violence or are fleeing abusive situations at home.

Advocates are trained in trauma-informed care and understand the unique circumstances that lead to homelessness within the Native community. The Homeless Youth Program works with clients to develop their plans to meet long-term goals including employment, education, and healing from domestic violence, substance abuse, and systemic traumas. We believe culture is healing.

We recently spoke with NAYA Direct Services Manager Allyssa Casad, Choctaw, about the program and what inspires her to serve community youth. Here is what she had to say.

What are the goals of NAYA’s Homeless Youth Program?
Our biggest goal is to make sure that youth are supported and able to move into a place. We use a housing-first model. A lot of programs that are not housing-first require that people are first clean and sober and have a job before they’ll house them. That’s actually not a trauma-informed approach. We have better success supporting youth when they’re not experiencing excessive trauma on the street, so we house first and then start working on jobs and other goals that they have.

We also make sure they have food. And we often supplement their rent costs until we can get them working and able to pay on their own. A youth advocate sits down with them and creates a goal plan, and talks about what’s going on and what the youth wants. It’s based on the Relational Worldview Model. If they want a job and need to work on their résumé or go back to school, then we walk them over to NAYA’s College & Career Center. If they need to work right away, we refer them to the Community Works Program.

We work very closely with our domestic violence (DV) Healing Circle. A lot of our young women have experienced DV or are currently experiencing DV. Advocates sit down and talk about things that are going on. We ask, “How can I help you? What’s going to benefit you? What are your goals?” Then we go from there to determine the next wraparound step.

How do youth learn about the program and where do they come from?
We get referrals from our downtown partner agencies for Native youth that want culturally specific services, but that’s actually a small amount of our referrals. Most of our referrals come from the community where someone’s auntie or friend or sibling heard about this service we have. We also get a lot kids from Warm Springs, Yakama, and other local tribes who come here and live in their cars looking for a fresh start.

A lot of our youth are aging out of foster care or are experiencing homelessness at a really early age due to a lot of systemic trauma that happens to our community in general. NAYA is the only culturally specific program in the Homeless Youth Continuum.

What are the misperceptions about Portland’s Native homeless community that you want to dispel?
The Native community experiences homelessness differently than other programs’ participants. Our families are living in cars. They are doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up in one-bedroom apartments. The biggest issue with that is that there are often unsafe people there. Maybe an abuser is there. Other times, leases say you can only be in someone else’s place for 20 days. Then they all get evicted. It’s this really awful cycle.

A misconception about homeless Natives is that they’re out on the street in tents. People think that they should just get a job or they should just work harder. People think our youth want to be homeless or they’re choosing to be on the streets. That’s very much not true.

These are kids who have experienced so much systemic trauma that we need to be able to provide them with trauma-informed, culturally specific services. For example, the shelter is downtown, but our youth prefer not to go there because they have experienced systemic trauma in similar situations. They say, “I was abused in a group home,” or “I don’t want my child taken away,” or “I don’t want more systems in my life because they have created all of these divides and oppression in my past.”

It’s not a chosen life. It’s a life that our youth are really self-conscious about. They want so much more for their kids. They want to provide their culture to their kids. They come here saying, “I need to be in a space where people understand how this happened to me, why it happened to me, why it continues to happen to me—that I’m not choosing to do this.” So being able to come to NAYA is hugely important.

This seems like very challenging work. How do you find balance for yourself?
There’s nothing like working within your own community. Being at NAYA is such a breath of fresh air. It’s definitely where I’m meant to be. I really enjoy working with youth, those who are 18 to 25. I think that’s just my niche. I’m able to provide our youth with culture, support, relationships, and belonging. I know that’s so important.

It is challenging, but seeing the successes of youth, that’s why I’m doing this. I’ve had clients who went back to school. They were able to get financial aid and childcare through PSU and PCC. We’ve had youth who have finally been able to receive mental health services. We’ve had a youth graduate from college, get a job as a nurse, and maintain her own place. She continues to call to say, “Thank you so much. I feel like I’m now a fully functioning person. I’m taking care of myself. I’m taking care of my child. I’m making sure I’m not traumatizing my child the way I was traumatized.”

It’s so much more than housing. It’s looking at very real human needs. Housing is just one part of that. Once they are housed, we keep them on our caseload to make sure that they stay housed, or they’re getting mental health, drug and alcohol, or DV services. It’s pretty amazing to see these youth feel proud of themselves and more connected to our community. We run into them at the Children’s Pow Wow and Culture Night. It’s amazing to see them flourish and grow. It makes the work worth it.

Where do people go if they want to contribute?
Donations are great! We give out a lot hygiene items like toothbrushes, shampoo, feminine hygiene products, formula, diapers, wipes, and bottles. We’re always looking for people who want to volunteer to teach cultural arts and crafts for our youth who are engaging in pro-social activities and trying to engage in things that are healthy and culturally specific. We know that culture is healing so we continue to incorporate that into our programs. So any kind of cultural art supplies are appreciated, as are elders who want to spend time with our youth.

If you are between the ages of 16 and 24 years old and experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County, please contact our program for help at (503) 288-8177. Homeless youth service advocates will meet with youth interested in services here at NAYA or in the community. Anyone is welcome to come during our drop-in hours Monday–Thursday from 3–5 p.m. to complete a screening and learn more.