Youth Voices Getting Heard in Harrisburg

Scott Lamar and Brandon Stokes

Scott Lamar and Brandon Stokes. Photo credit: Kristen Young, and info@kristenshines.come.

journey2home–Mural Arts’ socially-engaged public art project about youth housing insecurity–ended last October with the dedication of Home Safe, a major public art piece in West Philadelphia (you can read and see more about journey2home here). But journey2home is proving to have a ripple effect, as news outlets pick up the art and stories which came out of the project, and most excitingly, involved youth have been asked to speak at conferences in Harrisburg, Washington D.C., and Connecticut. and Connecticut Project manager and co-creator of journey2home Shari Hersh speaks about the most recent developments in the j2h story.

On Thursday, February 26, three young people from journey2home were awarded grants of $1000 each from the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. The grants, which are intended “to help with education, employment opportunities, or other endeavors that advance continued work in their communities,” were inspired by a presentation the youth gave at last November’s Homes Within Reach conference in Harrisburg.

Steven Smith, Brandon Stokes, and Phantazia Washington represented journey2home to the conference as keynote speakers. The presentation mirrored the structure of the many conversations at the journey2home storefront and pop-up gathering hub, which hosted monthly community discussions and story shares. After brief words by both Jane Golden and me, the young people engaged with Scott LaMar (host of the award-winning radio program Smart Talk) in an interview/panel discussion format to highlight their stories and the many challenges they faced when homeless.

The audience of 850 politicians, advocates, service providers and housing developers was remarkably engaged and silent, completely absorbed in the panelists. Steven spoke of the challenges of his single mom being able to raise her family and earn a living at the same time. Brandon, a passionate student of American politics, spoke of the gaps in educational opportunity and the impact of moving often.

Standing (L-R): Phantazia Washington, Steven Smith, Shari Hersh, Joyce Sacco, Liz Hersh. Seated: Scott Lamar, Brandon Stokes.

Standing (L-R): Phantazia Washington, Steven Smith, Shari Hersh, Joyce Sacco, Liz Hersh. Seated: Scott Lamar, Brandon Stokes. Photo credit: Kristen Young, and info@kristenshines.come.

Now, months later, a few particular moments stick out in my memory. At one point Scott asked about the services the speakers had received, and how they helped. Phantazia, who now works professional life has led her to inspire and educate homeless youth – particularly LGBTQ youth – at The Bryson Institute at The Attic Youth Center, spoke to trust, and the emotional damage of living with homelessness, and how though services had helped with housing, food, and clothes–all vital–there are other struggles for which there aren’t many systems in place.

“When you’re homeless or living on the street,” she pointed out, “you don’t necessarily know who is looking to genuinely support you, and who is looking to take advantage of the position you are in. And particularly in looking at young folk who are looking to stay out of the child welfare system, which might not be the safest place, especially for LGBTQ youth, there’s a huge lack of trust in adults.

“Being in community with other young folks, of my racial group, my sexual orientation, that experienced homelessness and being able to find community was a very healing experience with journey2home, that helped me to personally feel less alone in my struggle with homelessness.”

When young people who have lived the almost impossible situation of being homeless in America, and navigated a way to stability, share their story, they dignify the grit, resilience and resourcefulness they each developed in making that journey. They also inspire and dignify the experiences of youth still in the process, and the advocates and providers who work to address the incredible gap in resources for them.

Journey2home, as an art-driven project, is designed to position youth experiencing homelessness into a powerful context–not as receivers of services but as experts, makers, and agents of change. The presentation, appropriately, closed with a showing of Jon Kaufman’s short documentary of the project, which you can watch here.

As a direct result of speaking in Harrisburg, Brandon, Phantazia and Steve were awarded grants by the Housing Alliance. They have also attracted the attention of other organizations, and been engaged to speak at the National Network for Youth’s National Summit on Youth Homelessness in DC later this month, alongside journey2home lead artists Michael O’Bryan and Jared Wood.

We thank Liz Hersh and Joyce Sacco of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, Darla Bardine at NN4y, and Joe Willard of PEC for providing the opportunities for young people to speak out.

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