BRATTLEBORO—When Christine Linn tells people “we have homeless youth in Brattleboro,” she says, “they don’t believe me.”
Linn has firsthand knowledge of the situation: A couple of decades ago, she was a homeless young person in Brattleboro.
In April, Linn was appointed as director of youth development at Youth Services. In this position, she works directly with homeless youth and oversees others who assist them.
She is in charge of local host homes that provide respite for runaway teens, and a 24-hour crisis hotline for youth. Linn also supervises case managers and peer outreach workers, tracks funding and grants, and works with other community agencies.
As part of this role, Linn also serves on state and regional committees that address youth homelessness. This gives her an opportunity to advocate for her clients. It also provides a view into the structural deficiencies that harm her clients.
“Disconnected, couch-surfing, and runaway youth” often don’t qualify for housing through some federal programs, Linn said, and “youth aren’t attractive to landlords.”
“We need emergency shelter that’s youth-specific. A lot of young people won’t stay in the overflow shelter because they don’t feel it’s safe for them. We need dedicated space for youth,” she said.
“The Brattleboro youth shelter is one three-bedroom apartment,” Linn said, and added, “we need more.”
“Right now, we have two young families in the Brattleboro homeless youth shelter who have been there since February, and we don’t know what we’re going to do,” Linn said.
One of the families has a high-needs baby, which limits their ability to work outside the home. The other has a relatively high income, Linn said, but an inconsistent rental history. In a town like Brattleboro, which has a very low vacancy rate, the few available apartments will go to renters with better references, she noted.
Another challenge for homeless youth is knowing how to navigate the rental process. Without supportive caregivers, they don’t have the skills to deal with landlords and utility companies.
“A continuum needs to be there,” starting with group or shared apartments, Linn said. This way, disconnected youth can learn life skills and make connections with others.
A major part of her responsibility, Linn said, is making connections between her clients, other agencies and organizations, and community members. “There are ways to leverage community resources to assist youth,” she said. This can take the form of mentoring and skill development, which will help her clients achieve a feeling of competency they often lack in their present situation.
How did Linn go from being a disconnected youth to director of youth development?
“Since I was a little kid, social justice was very important to me. I always notice when people are not cared for or are suffering,” Linn said.
When she was 14 or 15, Linn dropped out of high school, “mostly because I read the beatniks too early” and felt a kinship with these writers who felt out-of-place in the dominant culture.
“I had challenges with the relationship with my mom, and I was put in state’s custody under foster care,” Linn said.
These experiences highlighted Linn’s feeling of powerlessness as a teen.
Back then, “I had no idea I had a say in anything, and I think a lot of young people feel that way. I had no control over my life. I didn’t have an adult who was helping me articulate that.
“I never had anyone take me under their wing. My escape was in reading and writing. [Through this] I could stay open to the possibility of change and activate my executive functioning,” Linn said.
After leaving high school, Linn left the area and traveled for a few years in the southwest. When she moved back to Brattleboro, her stepfather got her a gardening gig with some people connected to Marlboro College. This inspired her to enroll.
“Marlboro gave me a structure for thinking and processing information, and it gave me a framework for the critique of structures. I didn’t have that before,” said Linn.
“It gave me access to academic works, to Paulo Freire [author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed], Marx, Freud,” Linn said. Although she didn’t realize it until years later, this education helped her understand “the structures that oppressed me.”
’I slept on roofs’
Linn transferred to Union Institute & University and completed her bachelor’s degree, then earned a master’s in psychology, then worked at Union. Not feeling fulfilled by academia, and wanting to work for social justice, Linn left.
In 2014, Linn got the therapeutic case manager job at Youth Services. At that point, she said she knew “my life is aligned for the first time.”
She held that position until July, when Youth Services hired Wendi Byther. But Linn still manages a few clients.
“As a case manager, I can work well with young people because I can help them articulate themselves. I was a homeless teenager. I slept on roofs, in my car, on the banks of the West River. I know the chaos of that. It can be boring and stressful and you just want a shower [...] and sometimes I share that with clients,” Linn said.
“It’s a relationship. We want to have boundaries, of course, but we’re all human beings, so there’s some self-disclosure when it’s appropriate,” she said.
What do her clients say when Linn tells them she’s been there, too?
“There’s usually not a reaction, but as the relationship grows and we come to care about each other, it can feel inspiring,” said Linn. “We’re hoping to plant seeds. I think one of the most important things we do with young people is visualize possibilities.”
“We have to love our clients to do this work. We show them an additional way to be loved beyond parents [and other family members]. In addition to helping them get housing and food stamps, that witnessing — being seen, in pain and in triumphs — is important. That’s really huge,” Linn said.
Linn hopes this approach will foster a feeling of belonging — and ultimately a sense of empowerment.
“Community is radical to me. It’s building an army that spreads this idea of connection to develop ways to share resources, identify individual strengths and weaknesses,” and repair the latter, Linn said.
“It’s important to me that we’re helping youth critique these systems so it’s not about ‘What’s wrong with me?’ but, ‘What’s wrong with the system?’” Linn said.
“We’re a community — not just individual consumers,” Linn said.
“I really want the community to know there are homeless youth with babies in Brattleboro. We need a place for them to go when they’re couch-surfing or being sexually exploited — which happens here,” said Linn. “There are homeless babies in Brattleboro, and we need to, as a community, figure this out.”