Youth In Need and the Power of Potential

Erin Strohbehn has a vision in her head of a stream of young people walking across a stage, heads held high, smiling from ear to ear, reaching out for their high school diploma with the enthusiasm of an Olympian grasping a medal. The 10-year veteran and Senior Director of Youth Programs of Youth In Need has seen many victories along the way, but says the image of high school graduation stays with her. “I knew how many times some of them had tried to complete their diploma and never gave up. I knew what it meant for their self-confidence and represented for their futures,” she says.
Youth In Need’s core mission is fostering hope in and uncovering the potential of our community’s most vulnerable youth – the homeless, abused, neglected, economically poor. One ultimate goal is ending youth homelessness in our area. What began as an emergency shelter in St. Charles in 1974 has evolved into a comprehensive array of programs and services for children, teens and families, with a large footprint.

“There’s a misconception that homelessness only impacts our urban populations, when in reality it’s suburban and rural, too. We understood early on that we needed to reach clients where they are,” says Rob Muschany, Youth In Need’s Chief Development Officer. Youth In Need services are currently provided at more than 90 locations in six counties, including an emergency shelter, residential housing, mobile outreach units, “safe place” businesses, schools and more.

Services range from early childhood education to crisis intervention, housing, counseling and skills development at the other end of the spectrum. “For our older youth, it’s about safety and stability first, and then education at its most basic levels,” says Strohbehn. “Some of the young people we work with have never been taught how to make a sandwich, mop a floor, interact on a social level – the broad skills you need to be successful in life.”

Success looks different for every person served by Youth In Need, says Muschany. One young woman that was living in her car with her baby as recently as last October is now in her own apartment, working a full-time job and enrolled in a tech program. “Independence, coping skills, education, employment – we set the bar high. Whatever it may be, it’s always based on the needs and hopes of that individual. No matter how much we grow and evolve, that will never change,” he says.

While the average relationship with older youth is about nine months, the threads can stay intertwined. Muschany describes a pregnant teen in one of their residential homes that now has her child enrolled in Youth In Need’s Head Start program, which offers developmental services for children from birth to age 5 to help prepare them for kindergarten. Another former resident has come back to provide CPR training to staff as a certified instructor. “It’s just really neat to see their successes and how they stay connected,” he says.

Building connections is the catalyst behind an initiative launched by Youth In Need in 2018 and kickstarted by a YouthBridge Think Big for Kids grant. “The idea is to create a network of service agencies intent on significantly reducing youth homelessness and creating more permanent housing for at-risk youth,” says Strohbehn. The organization has created a full-time position to cultivate and convene those relationships, not only with providers, but also landlords and others important to helping youth gain autonomy. Through the YouthBridge grant, Youth In Need was able to spearhead a regional application to become a Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project through the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development and expand a regional Homeless Adolescent Task Force.

“We’re looking for others passionate about this mission and willing to see the potential. If we have a shot at ending youth homelessness, we must all work together to address it,” she says.