Harm Reduction for Youth

How Using a Harm Reduction Model for Youth can Help Us Accomplish the Goal of Ending Youth Homelessness

Deputy Director Jennifer Ho

Harm reduction for a teenager is not the exact same intervention as harm reduction for, as an example, a 55-year old with a long history of homelessness and chronic alcoholism. When we talk about harm reduction for youth, we still mean a youth-appropriate intervention focused on positive youth development. There is a strong, urgent need to help youth who are engaging in risky behavior and experiencing homelessness. If providers can work with them to build strong and trusting relationships before their behaviors become long-term habits, we can keep them from a life on the streets.

Harm reduction is fundamentally about meeting a person where they are at, in a non-judgmental way that engages that person in services. Incorporating harm reduction strategies for youth who are engaged in harmful behavior, often as a result of what has happened to them along the way, helps us meet the vision of Opening Doors: no one should experience homelessness—no one should be without a safe, stable place to call home.

Using a harm reduction model requires agency commitment from the top down and staff buy-in from the bottom up. It takes training, practice, supervision, patience, and perseverance. Having been a part of such a model in Minnesota, I also know that it can be one of the most rewarding experiences. To give up on a young adult is to condemn them to a life on the streets, in prison, and even early death. To give a young adult hope and help them to a position of strength is the gift of a second chance, of a new lease on life.

If it were your child who ran away and was in trouble, would you want to know that the organizations that have a mission to help homeless youth would open their doors and welcome her in, no matter what was going on with her at the time? As Bob Mecum the director of Lighthouse Youth Services has said, this is about unconditional love.

Many may question using limited resources to help those who are hardest to reach when there are others willing to conform to strict rules to get help. That viewpoint, however, abandons our youth who have the deepest need, who are at the highest risk of negative life outcomes. If we are going to end homelessness for all youth, we must have the capacity to serve youth who have a variety of risk factors including histories of substance abuse, trauma, and mental illness.  The same factors that cause homelessness cause their increased risk of harm. 

USICH spoke with staff from three youth programs that employ a harm reduction approach: Preble Street in Portland, Maine; the Community Action Partnership of Western Nebraska; and Outside In in Portland, Oregon. They shared lessons learned and tips on how to build trusting relationships that can help youth find stability on their own terms.

Go to Harm Reduction: Advice from Leaders in the Field

Read what they shared on the following topics:

USICH also spoke with Tricia Clerk a young woman who experienced homelessness in Portland, Maine and who found stability after participating in a harm reduction program.

On Thursday, January 12th USICH hosted a webinar on this topic and will be joined by panelists from Lighthouse Youth Services in Cincinatti, OH and Preble Street in Portland Maine.

Watch the webinar now