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A Place Where We Feel Safe: The first Month at Step Up Independent Living Program

The Step Up program has been open for almost a month and everyone is asking "how is it going over there?" In short, it's going really well. But take it from the ones who know best: the ten youth who are calling Step Up home.

Ashton, Fiona, Jonah, Jasper, Jill, Emmet, Haley, Troy, Everly and Jameson are all working through step 1 of the Step Up independent living program. In a sort of informal town hall, they gathered in the common room of the residence hall and shared their perspective with Kathy. As always, she mostly listened, allowing them the space to express a full range of feelings-- some vented frustrations (a lot of business concerning who does the dishes and when); others sought clarity on the process of getting to Step 2; there was some fretting about the now and the how, but the most prevailing emotions were excitement and hope.

That right there is the first major win for Step Up. These kids have hope for where they are headed. That's worth a lot.

Speaking of where they are headed, it turns out that they are really looking forward to Step 2, when they get to share a room with just one other person. In Step 1, they have been living in a room with three other people. This is not due to lack of space--there are plenty of rooms yet to be filled in the hall--it’s because they need to learn to work together.

The collaborative nature of the program has been by far their greatest hurdle. Living together, they've been challenged to plan and prepare meals as a team, manage their time getting up, showering, and taking turns with laundry, and keeping their rooms clean. They've had to speak up for themselves about boundaries and find tactful ways to broach topics such as what kinds of foods are too smelly to be consumed in a small room with others. It's a huge improvement seeing them step away from old habits of keeping their head down to avoid conflict. Instead, they are developing healthy expression and problem solving skills.

During the first week, when tempers were high and many of the youth felt a little overwhelmed by their new responsibilities, Fiona said something that really broke down the way many of her peers felt. "We're still just getting used to having a place like this where we can feel safe. It's been a long time since we've felt that way; it will take some time, but we’ll get there."

The truth of her words almost downplays the rapidity of their successful strides forward. In less than 30 days they have risen to the challenge of figuring out their own solutions, just like all self-sufficient adults should. When Ashton was unhappy with the state of the men’s room one morning, he proposed a more frequent cleaning schedule. Understandably, though, he was worried about equity–if he stepped up to the plate to do more cleaning, would the others follow?

On a white board in the common room, every young person's name is accompanied by a task for them to take responsibility in their room such as taking out the trash. For the most part, the youth have had no problem completing these in time for housing coordinator Melanie to check their rooms, but common area chores in the kitchen and bathrooms caused some squabbling over who does what and when. Kathy and Melanie remained firm in holding the youth to the expectation that every day these areas must be cleaned and acting as referees for the bickering to keep things civil, but they never proposed an alternative solution. It was very democratic: either you follow the rules that are in place, or you come up with a solution that works better for everyone.

And that's exactly what they did. At their "town hall" they came up with a solution that no one objected to--talk about a functional democracy! The common area chores are now assigned on a weekly basis, so that if someone is assigned something they don’t like they know it is only short-term.

In just a few short weeks the youth of Step Up have really made this building their own. Unlike the shelters they stayed in before, they feel a sense of ownership over the place, and a growing camaraderie with their peers. Nothing feels temporary as they discuss ways to improve the green spaces outside in the courtyard, or as they discuss designs for a hallway mural. By having this place, they gain consistency and remove a major barrier to their progress. They can settle here. They can take pride in the life they are leading.

The greatest advantage for Step Up seems to be the built-in incentive. Every youth who follows the basic rules and continues to make progress can "step up" into the next level. With respect to the fact that each step is a long-term goal, short-term accomplishments are also rewarded by moving up to sub-levels 1b and 1c that permit them to come in earlier than the 8pm start time of the program. At this point one youth has earned step 1b privileges and six are in step 1c, which means they will soon be in step two.

Whether you call it friendly competition or just a few roommates looking out for each other, the results are the same: they all want to get to Step 2 together and are always keeping an eye on each other's progress. We saw this infectious inspiration at the drop-in center, too--for every kid who got their GED, about three more would sign up for the software that would help them earn theirs. But unlike the drop-in center, at Step Up progress is not interrupted by the instability of a night spent in the backseat of the car, or a friend's couch, or a shelter bed; they can work all day at their job or at the drop-in center, then go home to a place where the same network of people is looking out for them.

How to get to Step 2 was their biggest concern during their “town hall.” Kathy laid it out for them: once they complete all of their required activities for Step 1, they need to be making enough money to set $50 aside each week for room and board in step 2. Though the budgeting class they attend every Sunday counts towards their community involvement hours, they need to start deciding what to do once those weekly requirements go up to 5. And if they don’t have their high school diploma, for instance, they need to be working on earning their GED.

And like magic, the conversation turned immediately positive. They discussed plans to get more hours at work, apply for higher paying positions, finish their GED courses, and find community activities they enjoy. The youth were not daunted by this to-do list, but inspired by it. Stepping Stones was founded on the idea that if you show a young person that they have the power to follow their own path out of homelessness, they will take all of the necessary steps. The Step Up program is new, and its first class still has a lot of steps to go, but it is safe to say that they have never felt quite so empowered to take them until now.

They are living proof the Stepping Stones motto: a small step in the right direction can be the most important step of your life.

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