Russell Bradbury-Carlin, executive director of Youth Services, speaks at a ceremony in 2019 marking the opening of the Snow Block in Brattleboro. The agency partnered with the Windham-Windsor Housing Trust to create four apartments designed to serve tenants from age 16 to 24 who are renting for the first time.
Randolph T. Holhut/Commons file photo
Russell Bradbury-Carlin, executive director of Youth Services, speaks at a ceremony in 2019 marking the opening of the Snow Block in Brattleboro. The agency partnered with the Windham-Windsor Housing Trust to create four apartments designed to serve tenants from age 16 to 24 who are renting for the first time.
Special Focus

A tightrope of needs

One area agency helps teens and young adults stay sheltered. The goal: to prevent chronic homelessness.

BRATTLEBORO-For Interaction: Youth Services and Restorative Justice, one major goal is to prevent chronic homelessness for students.

The agency works with approximately 60 teens. Of those, probably fewer than 20 are homeless in some form.

Some are runaways. Some have been living on the margins of society for many years. Some have been connected to the child welfare system, and the agency does a lot of work with the local arm of the state Department of Children and Families (DCF).

The agency gets its clients in multiple ways. Some are referred through DCF. Some come from other service agencies.

"For a lot of our programming, we get self-referrals, which, for me feels like the big hallmark - a big indicator of how successful we are," said Russell Bradbury-Carlin, 59, Interaction's executive director.

He noted that if you're a teen, "telling another friend to come to a human service agency speaks volumes for what they're getting here."

It's hard for anyone to decide to connect to a human service agency, but it's even a bigger problem for a young person.

"They have a whole host of reasons for being suspect of the adult world," Bradbury-Carlin said. "And particularly, for a lot of the folks that we work with, there's a lot of distrust of systems in general."

Such teens have been "negatively impacted in some cases from the various systems they've interacted with. So there's a reticence there."

Bradbury-Carlin says his agency cannot reach all the homeless students. Many fly under the radar.

"Youth who are in high school, who are homeless, or runaway, often they're couch surfing," Bradbury-Carlin said. "They're going to stay in a friend's house. Maybe the mom says, 'You can stay here for three weeks.' And then they go somewhere else."

And while youth who are serial guests at friends' houses are not unsheltered, "couch surfing is homelessness," Bradbury-Carlin asserted.

At Interaction, "we actually don't see most of those young people," he said.

"They aren't showing up on anyone's radar, right? They're going to school, they're not going to show up around truancy," Bradbury-Carlin said.

The paradox: These students are "able to weave their life well enough, where they're able to have a place to sleep, go to school, and get what they need to get done," he said.

"So they're not showing up [in statistics]. And I would also guess they also don't see themselves as capital-H homeless."

These teens that Interaction does see "probably have co-occurring issues like debilitating emotional and mental health issues, which we're seeing," Bradbury-Carlin said. "This isn't news that we're seeing tons and tons and tons. There's been a great increase."

He thinks another piece is that "these young people also dealing with family dynamics - really negative, harsh family dynamics."

Many of his homeless teenage clients never want to go back home.

"They're like, 'I can't deal with this now,'" Bradbury-Carlin said. "Or there was a fight and so, 'I'm going to stay at my friend's house until this cools down. Then maybe I'll come back.'"

'Can we get the youth back home in a way that's also safe?'

Some young people are referred to his agency by the schools.

"They're in the guidance counselor's office because of mental health or emotional issues," Bradbury-Carlin said.

They might get on the radar of Health Care & Rehabilitation Services, which provides community mental health services in Windham and Windsor counties, or "the police are getting involved in some way," he said.

Truancy, which has skyrocketed since Covid, "becomes an issue," Bradbury-Carlin said, adding that it "can obviously be a big factor when someone is running away."

"So we might be working with students to get them back into school, but also dealing with their homelessness at the same time," he said.

"After doing an assessment, we get clear exactly what the constellation of things going on is. Because very often, it isn't just homelessness. It is abuse going on at home, or trauma from long-term abuse, or it's mental and emotional issues."

The agency tries to provide support for its young clients. It is like walking a tightrope of needs.

"The first thing is getting them shelter, whatever that would be," Bradbury-Carlin said. "Are they in a safe space?"

Sometimes that can be at the home of a friend, he said, and Interactions will "help determine if this is really a safe place."

The agency might step in and talk with the family of the friend who is providing the shelter, verifying that the youth can stay and determining for how long.

"With the youth's permission, sometimes we will connect with the biological or adoptive family and see if there's a way for us to suggest some family counseling or some type of mediation," Bradbury-Carlin said.

The basic objective: "Can we get the youth back home in a way that's also safe?"

The agency can't provide physical housing for teens until they reach 18.

"We have different forms of shelter and housing, but it's really for 18 and older because they're adults and can sign themselves in," he said.

"So under the age of 18 - unless they're emancipated, which is another whole process - we have to get permission in order to house them. There are a lot of DCF foster homes, if it gets on DCF's radar, but our foster homes don't take teens or older youth."

Foster homes tend to want to take younger kids, Bradbury-Carlin said. That creates a gap in the agency's ability to provide shelter.

"Hopefully, some day there'll be a program that can house youth in this range so they can have a safe place and get the services they need," he said. "But it's a big cost, because that has to be a 24/7 staff."

Under the radar

It's often easier to visually identify adults who might be experiencing homelessness, as they are "the folks you tend to see out in the community. You see them more publicly," Bradbury-Carlin said.

"You don't see young people that way. They're in school, they're interacting with their friends who might be housed. There's no way for you to know, visually, that this young person [might be] homeless or not."

Some young people hide their homelessness because they fear getting caught, or getting into trouble.

"They hide themselves a little bit more," Bradbury-Carlin said. "But you should know, homelessness - across the nation, and particularly in Vermont - is out of control."

And it's not like the adult homelessness services "have got it all worked out," he added. "But they're meeting those needs, and the youth are being forgotten."

It's not an either-or situation. It's a both-and.

Interaction has a staff of 25 and a budget of $2 million, and it's still not enough, Bradbury-Carlin said.

"Resources are needed across the board, in multiple ways," Bradbury-Carlin said.

'This is the work I'm doing'

The aha moment for Bradbury-Carlin came very early in his career.

He was busy running a batterers' intervention program and also doing work in high schools around anti-bullying and anti–sexual harassment.

"And one day, I remember walking down the hall, and all of a sudden it hit me," Bradbury-Carlin said. "I was like, 'Wait a minute!'

"The two biggest traumas in my life were having an alcoholic, abusive dad and being severely bullied in middle and high school. And all of a sudden, it occurred to me, 'Oh, here I am, this is the work I'm doing, and it is around those two issues.'

"That wasn't a plan. And it wasn't conscious. So I think, sometimes, we're driven - or, unconsciously, we move towards - things to give us opportunities to heal. To look at our own stuff, basically."

Sometimes people don't "look at their own stuff." Sometimes they are comfortable only continuing with their own trauma. Those people never get healed.

"But a lot of people I know use the kind of work we do as an opportunity - on top of doing good work - to work through some of their stuff, which is what I feel I've done," Bradbury-Carlin said.

Bradbury-Carlin has worked in the social services all of his life. He has led the organization that until only recently was called Youth Services for nine years. He is certain he will continue to do this work until he retires.

"I've always naturally been an advocate," he said. "And I've always wanted to do work that is ultimately involved in helping raise the voices of people who often aren't heard in society. So I've just gravitated towards human services and social justice work."

Before he came to Brattleboro, Bradbury-Carlin was working as an executive director in a human services agency in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.

"I was looking for another opportunity," he said. "I've always been interested in working with young people - teens and young adults. That is largely, I think, because those are the periods of time of my most difficult experiences. So I like that population a lot."

He was pleased to learn that Youth Services was "largely focused on that specific population, because that doesn't exist in the same way down in Massachusetts."

There, Bradbury-Carlin said, young adults usually have two options: They tend to be connected to agencies working with adults, which might also have a program with teens, or to an agency that works primarily with younger kids and has some type of middle school track.

"It feels like an adjunct as opposed to a focus," Bradbury-Carlin said. "So I was really excited and threw my hat in the ring. And then I came here, and I've loved it. It's been a great experience."

This Special Focus item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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