At the Reciprocity Foundation, we have pioneered a different way to work with homeless youth—a methodology we call the “Whole Person” approach. A Whole Person approach involves looking deeply into a young person’s mind, heart and spirit and seeing them as a Whole Human Being—a person with the desire to realize their full potential, to make a contribution to the world, to be loved and to heal from their past.
As a sector, we have a tendency to compartmentalize barriers—to look at housing problems independent from self-esteem. The Whole Person approach involves taking a broader perspective and seeing the linkages between seemingly unrelated parts of a young person’s life. A Whole Person practitioner asks questions that direct youth to go within—to cultivate an honest and inspiring vision for their lives.
When we meet a new client, our intake procedure involves probing seven different aspects of a youth’s well-being including:
In addition to answering basic demographic and psychographic questions, we also probe their openness to change, their capacity to deal with stress and their view of their own self-worth.
A Whole Person approach involves more than a Q&A session—we invite youth to reflect on their skills, talents, aspirations, emotional health and spiritual values. We ask them, “What do you long to be?” to uncover their deepest motivations—the goals that transcend money or status. We invite them to reflect on how they will make a positive contribution to the world. At the end of the Whole Person intake process, we have a clear picture of each client’s aspirations and the key obstacles they need to overcome. It is imperative to view obstacles not only in concrete terms (i.e. housing, employment) but also from a psycho-spiritual view (i.e. the need to heal from abuse, the fear of failure, the need for a caring friend).
Program & Service Coordination
A second component to the Whole Person approach is the willingness to either provide End-to-end Programming (which can be cost prohibitive for smaller agencies) or to Coordinate Services and information amongst local agencies. Most homeless youth lack the confidence to envision and execute a comprehensive change plan. Whole Person practitioners provide that perspective to youth—and counsel youth to learn how to see their lives beyond an immediate crisis or need.
At the Reciprocity Foundation, we’ve found Service Coordination also helps youth build a strong relationship with a trusted adult—an important milestone on their journey to healing. This relationship can serve many roles: Youth learn to trust an adult, they feel better supported and they feel “seen” and cared for. Their primary contact at our agency will often introduce them to a mentor or to other like-minded youth in program so that they can develop a web of healthy relationships.
A Longer-term Commitment to Clients
Funders of homeless youth agencies usually take a compartmentalized view of a homeless youth’s barriers and force a timetable in which that change must occur (usually 6-12 months). A Whole Person approach looks not at “Potential Outcomes” but at “Readiness for Change.” We ask, How can we help our clients become ready to tackle the many obstacles on the road to independence? Readiness expands the frame beyond meeting program requirements—it asks the youth to develop a clear and strong motivation to undergo a change process. Once a homeless youth is truly ready, they will often exceed the expectations of a program, working at twice the speed and with thrice the success. But Whole Person practitioners must be willing to work on helping a youth feel ready—a process that could take as long, or longer, than the program itself.
Change is stressful. And each homeless youth must face a disproportionate amount of stress on the road to independence. The cost of failure is high—both psychologically and emotionally. And their fragility inhibits them from quickly “shaking off” a setback. As such, the Whole Person approach involves helping youth to develop a mindfulness practice to help them manage everyday stress, crises and challenge. At the Reciprocity Foundation, we encourage youth to try yoga and meditation—to give them a clear understanding of how a mindfulness practice can help. Then we encourage them to pick a practice that best suits them (e.g. meditation, dance, chanting).
Once our clients have developed a mindfulness practice, we feel comfortable introducing them to higher-stress opportunities—such as a corporate internship or a competitive academic program. Without mindfulness, most clients simply cannot systematically tackle the barriers they face without resorting to unhealthy patterns of stress relief (e.g. drug use, alcohol, sex) from their past.
A Whole Person approach also involves taking a different view of one’s clients. Most homeless agencies aim to lift their clients above the poverty level. A Whole Person approach involves aspiring to much more than financial stability—to believing that a young person can learn to start a meaningful career, to live independently, to make a contribution to the world, to mentor and support others in need, and so on.
At the Reciprocity Foundation, we believe that our clients thrive in our programs because we allow ourselves to see greater possibilities for homeless youth. Our 6-Stage Model (see Table 3) ends with a stage in which youth are financially independent of the shelter system. But in addition, youth at Stage 6 are mentoring other youth, able to manage their personal setbacks, have a clear (and evolving) vision of their role in the world and have built healthy relationships in their personal and professional lives.