Tips For Your Teens Volunteering On The Streets
In our last blog, we promised some practical tips for volunteering for THI’s Streets Time with
your teen or pre-teen. While some of the following may be unique to this age group, many of these tips are helpful for all ages, so we recommend looking them over before coming out for Streets Time with us for the first time no matter who you’re bringing!
First and foremost, we want to help you as parents define what this experience should be for your teens. We understand that for many of them, Streets Time will be their first time to experience what homelessness looks like up close, as well as their first personal encounter with a person experiencing homelessness. We encourage you to prepare them (and yourselves) by talking through what to expect. They will see people in tents, sleeping on the ground, on mattresses, or on old furniture. There will be trash on the ground. Some areas may stink. They may see people drinking alcohol or people who appear to be drunk or just “out of it” to some degree. Talk to them about why that is, how they think it feels to live in these conditions, and what circumstances might cause someone to end up here. Discuss what bigger societal issues come into play and can contribute to homelessness such as addiction, mental health, housing inequities, etc. Be careful to avoid stereotypes. Discuss how you might ask someone you meet about their story directly if they seem open to talking about it, and that no two stories or people are alike. Also let them know that some people may not want to talk or engage with them, and that is ok too. We all have those days when we just don’t feel like talking. Encourage your child that even if they feel uncomfortable, they should try to at least smile, make eye contact, or wave at the people they meet on the streets. Remind them that we will be visitors in their neighborhood, and as such, it is our job to be respectful and polite. The last thing we want to do is give off the impression that we are there simply to take a “tour of the homeless."As much as possible, we want to engage and interact with the people we meet. For teens and preteens, this can understandably feel like a lot. A simple hello or a friendly smile is often enough to brighten someone’s day and can truly be invaluable! Safety is another area that we know is always a huge concern for parents. Multiple THI staff members will always accompany a volunteer group. Routes are preplanned and the same routes are taken each week so that many of the people living along that route are familiar with staff and regular volunteers.
There is a reason we call them friends! We schedule Streets Time in the morning, when things are usually calm and there is high police presence in the area. Staff all take phones and encourage volunteers to do so as well. The groups stay together, and even
if they spread out within a small area as not to overwhelm one or two friends, they always stay within sight of each other and in at least smaller groups of two or three. However, volunteer experiences on the streets cannot be totally predicted or controlled. As a parent, we encourage you to talk to your kids about general safety while on the streets and what you personally are and are not comfortable with. Most parents prefer to keep their kids with them exclusively, unless they know a staff member or another volunteer well. Also keep in mind that some of the areas we will go into cross busy roads. Remind your teens about basic traffic safety precautions. A few other things we think may be helpful to keep in mind are to dress for the weather. We will be outside, and we will be walking. Wear comfortable, closed toed shoes. You will be walking in the street, dirt, mud, grass, and around trash. Bring water, but only what you can carry. If you want to bring a small backpack, fanny pack, or something about that size you are welcome, but we recommend limiting what you take. Pockets will be your best friends! If you can only bring your phone, keys, and water, then that is ideal. Speaking of phones, do not take photos on your phone during Streets Time. Remember that people may not feel comfortable having their photo taken. Again, we are visitors in their space. If there is a specific moment you want captured or person you feel connected to and would like to remember, you can pull one of THI’s staff members aside and ask them if they feel it would be appropriate, and they can navigate asking that friend for their permission to get a photo. However, we really encourage you to focus on staying in the moment and building relationships. This is a great way to set that example for your teen!
Finally, after Streets Time is over, your group will debrief shortly with the THI staff and discuss the experience. We encourage you to take this a step further as parents and continue the discussion with your teens once you get home. Give them an open door to ask questions and process what the experience felt like for them and share what it was like for you. If it leads to further questions about homelessness or other social issues, help them investigate those. We, of course, hope that this will only end up being one of the many times you and your teen decide to come out for Streets Time, but if the experience ends up opening up other areas of volunteer interests for them, there is no shortage of great organizations and causes in the DFW area! If you have questions about how to talk to your teens or preteens about homelessness or how to sign up for Streets Time with us, please feel free to reach out!