NEW BRITAIN - With the struggles of youth homelessness in the city heightened by the pandemic, one initiative is giving young people the opportunity to share their experiences and advocate for change.
Community Health Center Inc. is working on an initiative in partnership with the Weitzman Institute for a community-based participatory research project that seeks to spotlight youth homelessness in New Britain. Photovoice is a program that allows youth the opportunity to express their experiences through multimedia projects. These projects spotlight the realities of life for young people facing homelessness in the city and allow them to make recommendations for change.
Melanie Gonzalez, evaluation associate at the Weitzman Institute, said the hope is to create recommendations to present to stakeholders and leaders in the city. The project launched in the summer of 2020 with 16 young people ranging ages 14 to 24. In addition to learning about photography, participants learned about the societal and community factors that influence whether or not a young person is likely to experience homelessness.
“Participants have said that this has been a healing space for them. Specifically since youth homelessness is not something that everybody talks about, having a space where they are with peers who have also gone through similar things, they said that it makes them feel not so alone,” Gonzalez said.
Dr. April Joy Damian, vice president and director of Weitzman Institute, said the intention behind the project was formed prior to the pandemic. She said youth homelessness can prove especially challenging for youth of color and LGBT youth. An epidemiologist by training, Damian explained with acute chronic health and social issues, much of these disparities have been exacerbated throughout the pandemic
“The pandemic makes it worse. Whether it be economic insecurity, food insecurity, housing stability, but then to have some kind of refuge to talk about this. Right now they're in the process of putting together policy recommendations. Saying, this was a challenge before the pandemic, it's gotten worse due to the pandemic and here’s what young people are recommending can be done,” Damian said.
The group is currently undertaking a 10 to 12 week policy advocacy project that includes multimedia projects which can include interviews, spoken word poetry or art. Based on their fieldwork, participants created recommendations that they could present to entities in the city and state. Gonzalez said the initiative is creating policy briefs that will be presented to stakeholders in the city later this year.
“Whatever it is that really feeds their soul, but just something in the art form as a way to kind of tell their story or talk about the recommendations, talk about the issues they’re focused on,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said one of the areas the youth will focus on is mental health. She said many youth experiencing homelessness don't have access to mental health services. Often seeking help from resources can be difficult and Gonzalez said that youth can be “retraumatized” in the process. She said the goal is to find ways to support and nurture their mental health and help them to heal during the and after the process of experiencing homelessness.
“Many of them indicated that they’re experiencing homelessness, they’re by themselves, they’re on their own. But they don't know how to write a check, they don’t know about a budget, they don't know about these basic life skills that are traditionally handed down from parents,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said young adults in the program, ages 20 to 24, are in need of basic life skills. She said not every parent has these life skills to teach their child and some skills are not always taught in schools. Gonzalez said such services are not always accessible but the goal is to find effective ways to teach life skills to homeless youth that would allow them to thrive.
Gonzalez said the program also partnered with the YWCA New Britain, who are also completing a photovoice project, for a summit in September. She said it was an opportunity for the youth of both groups to connect with each other about their projects and experiences.
“We wanted to bring them together, have a good time, with some music, eat some food, and have the young people talk to each other about their projects, about the impact that their projects have had on them and their belief that young people can be instruments of change,” Gonzalez said.