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The Power of Confidence

Today is National Youth Confidence Day. This holiday has a special place on the Stepping Stones calendar because finding their confidence is one of the most integral steps in a young person’s journey out of homelessness. Young people become homeless for many reasons, so they do not have too much in common when they come to Stepping Stones, other than that they’ve lost their place to live. But they lost something else, too along the way: their ability to believe in themselves.

Ben did not believe in himself when he first came to Stepping Stones. It was the summer after his senior year and even though he’d been accepted to college, he lacked family support and had no idea how to afford his degree. His first trip into Stepping Stones showed how hopeless he felt. Ben came in hoping to get tools to clear out a spot in the woods nearby. After losing his home, Ben saw no future for himself outside of a tent in the woods.

Such a lack of confidence exacerbates the despair of homelessness in ways that most people do not know unless they’ve experienced it first hand. A person who needs help but lacks confidence does not put themselves out there to get what they need. Tom and Rachel both struggle with this. Despite really wanting to overcome his substance use, Tom avoided going into recovery for months simply because he feared the way other addicts would treat him. Rachel’s struggle with self-worth is even more pervasive; every time she starts to make progress in her own right, she suddenly stops showing up. The reason is always the same: she found a new boyfriend. Rachel’s dream is to meet someone who will take care of her, but when that falls through, she comes back to Stepping Stones. If she had more confidence in her own ability to be self-sufficient, we know she could do so much more.

Jack’s belief in becoming self-sufficient waned when he lost his job, his second one that summer, and his third in a year. He felt so ashamed that he stopped coming into the drop-in center for a while, because he knew that in order to file his housing application, he needed to turn in some paystubs. After a few months, he assumed his housing opportunity went up in smoke, too. The only reason he came back was to ask for help applying for food stamps. Other than that, he felt stuck. It turned out that Jack had been let go for showing up late too many times. A lack of transportation had been his reason. Where he slept changed each night, but his job site did not. Some mornings he made it in on time, but on others when he slept across the border in Hudson, it took him much longer. Even though Jack had someone giving him rides now, he did not feel confident about landing a new job.

Confidence is the invisible force that these young people lose along with jobs and housing, so the way we see it, confidence should be the first thing they get back. After a short period of time living outside and stopping in during the day to visit the staff at Stepping Stones, Ben found his voice. After talking through his myriad anxieties about his past and future with Stepping Stones staff, he started to focus on the present: he saw that he did have time to apply for financial aid, that programs existed to help kids like him reach their full potential. He now lives on campus and is earning his degree. His dorm is a far better situation for him than a tent in the woods.

A big step for homeless youth is developing the confidence to say whatever is in the past is done, but I am able to look forward and change my future for the better. It only took a few compassionate conversations with staff for Jack to see this. First, Kathy walked him through the housing process–it turned out that all he needed to do was write that he was unemployed but looking for work. After submitting his housing application on time, he felt a little silly for not coming clean about his paystubs sooner, but that no longer held him back. He worked overtime on new job applications after giving his resume a “glow up.”

It took some convincing to get Jack to sit down with me to write his resume. He knew three jobs in so short a period of time would not look good, and he did not want to answer any questions about why he had trouble getting to work on time. In the end, Jack felt good knowing that even though he sat down to learn resume writing from me, he managed to do most of the teaching that day. Jack taught me a lot about different kinds of manufacturing jobs simply by describing the kinds of tasks he learned at his former job sites. This process helped Jack unpack his past in more detail and learn how to reward his achievements. He no longer saw those jobs as failures but experiences that gave him a good spread of skills to showcase at his next interview. Then he said something really interesting about his most recent job.

“They didn’t want to let me go, actually. My manager said I was one of the best workers he ever had, but because I couldn’t get there on time, he had to get someone more reliable.”

I asked him, “Did you ever think about calling him back and letting him know you have transportation now?”

The stress of being homeless prevents young people like Jack from asking these sorts of questions, or believing that there can be positive solutions to the worries that keep them up at night. But with just a little bit of help, Jack gained the confidence to go back out and try again. By the time Jack got his housing voucher, he already had a job. This will go a long way to helping him become self-sufficient. He got to work right away calling landlords and doing interviews for apartments. He found his new home, and best of all, it is right near his work. For Jack, a little confidence went a long way.

The incredible mileage of confidence is ever-present in the young people running the Stepping Stones youth action board, HEAL. Their shared experience of homelessness includes a backstory where they all lacked confidence. Their childhoods bore trauma, and as young adults they learned to hide their homelessness. Once, they languished under the fear of stigma, but now they broadcast their experience to others to spread awareness; They are almost all housed and enjoying a network of caring, like-minded people who have shown them that they can not only thrive in this community, but make a difference in it. For them, confidence is not just the catalyst for changing their own situation, but for turning back to those who supported them and saying, “what more can I do? How can I help?”

Fear of failure can hold anyone back, but when young people with limited resources equate failure with losing everything, that can be very paralyzing. At Stepping Stones they learn that it’s okay to take chances, because there are still people out there who have your back. Most of the time, all that is really required to restore confidence to young people is to remind them that their lives are still full of opportunity. Once they realize this, it’s a bit like a door to a secret hallway has opened. They do not just get one new exit point, but several, and the more doors they look through, the more they start to see that there is very little limit to what they can do.

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