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Why Youth? Part Three: Step Up

Jonah’s first day at Stepping Stones was yesterday. He left a bad situation and went out to get help right away. He had only been homeless for less than a day when he sat down with Sarah to discuss his options. Then Jonah took his first crucial step out of homelessness: he signed up for courses to earn his GED. Then, he made an appointment at the social security office.

This is a typical first day at Stepping Stones, and that’s by design. After a homeless young person has accomplished just one little thing, you don’t have to be watching too closely to see something shift in them. They hold their breath, afraid to let out that sigh of relief. Something feels too good to be true. “That was easy,” they say “is that it?”

“For today, yes,” we smile. “Good work!”

That’s when it clicks. They just learned that a really big problem is solvable, one small step at a time. And they just took their first step.

After making his first strides, we gave him praise. Then he said something interesting: “I don’t want to get comfortable being homeless.”

It was as if Jonah knew something that many people his age do not yet grasp–that the superpower of young people is their drive and stubborn desire to do everything on their own, and that works to their advantage when they are first in crisis. But that does not last forever.

If they have too many setbacks, it starts to feel impossible. The crisis of homelessness becomes normal. Motivation wanes as they start to feel that time is against them. How am I going to wait seven years for a housing voucher? How will I keep a job long enough to make rent without having a consistent place to live? If I do get a place, how will I manage to keep it?

Up until recently, these questions burned anxiously for even the most hard-working youth at Stepping Stones. But there has been a collective sigh of relief since Stepping Stones announced that it finally found a location for the Step Up program.

What is the Step Up Program? It is a goal-driven, live-in program where homeless youth of Greater Nashua will master independent living skills. Based in repurposed residence halls at the former site of Daniel Webster college, nearly 90 will finally have a bed to call their own as they make progress in different areas such as career development, healthy living, and community involvement. They will be required to find and make progress at a full-time job if they are not enrolled full-time in school, or part-time if they’ve made education their priority. Whether it is getting a check-up with their doctor or learning to cook meals for themselves and their neighbors, the youth will be busy building skills to show they are ready to move forward.

All throughout April, Stepping Stones has been hard at work to prepare the two-story building that will house levels 1 through 3. In the first level,“the Launchpad,” twelve youth spend the first 21 days getting accustomed to the routine, learn to cohabitate with others, keep the space clean, and abide by some basic rules. As they move up each level, they earn more spacious accommodations and increased privileges, but they also take on added responsibility: more work or educational hour requirements, more pay set aside for rent. With a roommate in level 2, they must learn to work together, whereas in level 3 they must master living in a single room all on their own.

The substance-free building is a safe place for them to accomplish all of this, and the close bonds that they have established with the Stepping Stones team will help them with the transition; one staff member will be living their full-time, and they continue to have access to the drop-in center during the day, which is only a 7 minute ride. The bus goes right out to the corner of the campus, and as needed, staff can provide rides thanks to our generous community partners who purchased vehicles for Stepping Stones this Spring.

We expect 60 youth to fill all three levels by the end of this summer; by autumn, 28 more spots will open up in level 4, which we are developing at another site across the campus. At that level, youth who are approaching the finish line will share a townhouse and split near-market rent, cover their utilities, and reduce their dependence on social services.

The main goal of the program is ensuring that once they graduate from level four, they are fully equipped to maintain their situation as happy, self-sufficient adults without relying on social services. They will have earned a positive tenant reference from us, saved funds for a security deposit, and be making enough money to afford their own place. They will know how to care for themselves, to handle this thing we call “adulting.”

Already, homeless youth at Stepping Stones have higher hopes for their futures now that this new opportunity is within arm’s reach. Eight youth have already claimed their spots, and more will follow soon after. Youth like Ashton, Kevin, and Everly have been hard at work, volunteering time on weekends to help prepare the building for its first night of occupancy.

We are proud to announce that in the first week of May, this program will open its doors to these youth who have been working so hard. Despite lacking housing, many have been able to earn their GEDs, find jobs, and learn to drive, but a good deal more will thrive once they have a consistent place to live where they can directly benefit from mastering life skills.

Starting a program like this has been Kathy’s dream since she founded Stepping Stones in 2020. The long road to getting this building gave the organization a deeper appreciation of what the Stepping Stones kids go through every day. After all, we had a problem that felt unsolvable: hundreds of kids needed help, but when we can hardly find one apartment to rent, how will we find a whole building to teach them all they need to know about becoming an adult?

So when a vacant college dorm crossed our path, we felt like the youth on their first day of intake: “Wait… is that it?”

But it really is that simple–a place where young people once met to study, and work, and build brighter futures for themselves. That’s what Stepping Stones kids deserve. We can’t wait to see all that they can do, now that they have it.

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