Taking Back the Community: Teen outreach on the streets

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va, (WAVY) -- There are more than 6,000 homeless people in Virginia, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nearly 1,500 of those are minors, and many of them are in the Hampton Roads region.

There's an area shelter that's working to reduce that number and help put kids and teens on a new path. To do that, they're going out on the streets.

Every day, five days per week, the Seton Youth Outreach Van hits the roads. With snacks, supplies, and advice for kids and teens, they make stops in 34 neighborhoods across Hampton Roads. Their mission is to give kids the resources they need to stay off of the streets.

Not all of the kids are homeless, but they could be at-risk.

"It's any youth that's in a crisis in a community that they're living in," said David Mount, who is the director of Street Outreach Programs for Seton Youth Shelters. He started the program in 2001.

Mount says the snacks and supplies are important, but they hope their outreach can give kids and teens a place to turn if they ever need it.

"Everyone has dreams, and our young people can dream as well as the best of us," said Mount. "It really is an opportunity to be able to share the resources that are closest to their community."

But it's not always easy to establish that connection.

"You have young people who you don't know, that you're asking them to be able to develop a rapport and a level of trust to provide them with some information that is meaningful for them to make decisions maybe now and in the future," said Mount.

The counselors say they only have 60 seconds to make an impact, kids don't like to stick around, but they've made it work.

"The credibility comes from meeting a young person where they're at without having to judge what they're doing, where they've been or where they're coming from," Mount said.

Sharena Handy is one of the counselors who is now a familiar face in the neighborhoods.

"I try to be very transparent and I try to be very non-judgmental when it comes to dealing with our at-risk youth," Handy said.

A native of Norfolk, Handy knows it's not always easy for these minors.

"Kids need other entities to look up to other than just their immediate surroundings," Handy said. "Sometimes their immediate surroundings can be very negative."

Handy has been with the shelter for nearly four years, and in that time she has seen a lot.

"They had not eaten anything in a couple of days, except for at school," Handy said.  "I've seen that happen."

Some days, it's a thankless and emotionally draining job.  Handy said, "Children that are disenfranchised, that feel hopeless, that are hungry, you know that makes you feel some type of way."

But the kids they meet and the smiles they see make it all worth it.

"It only takes one person to make a difference in a young person's life," said Mount.

The outreach program used to have two vans with four volunteers and they could reach 20,000 at-risk youth per year.  But, a lack of funding leaves them with only one van and now they're reaching less than half of that number.

They are hoping to raise money for that second van. You can learn more about Seton Youth Shelters here.

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