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‘Gimme Shelter’

A social worker shines light on the potential of homeless youth

Youth Services of Tulsa case manager Daniel Howell

Greg Bollinger

Imagine if, instead of avoiding a homeless person on the street, you sought to communicate, understand, and offer assistance. For one Tulsa social worker, helping the homeless isn’t a feel-good hobby. It’s his job.

Youth Services of Tulsa case manager Daniel Howell works with homeless youth in the organization’s transitional living program. The program helps these young Tulsans (ages 17-22) become independent by providing a stable, safe place to live while equipping them with educational, occupational, and life skills for their transition into adult living.

Having graduated from Oral Roberts University with a degree in psychology, Howell said it was the community outreach experiences as a student with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds that set him on the path of social work.

“Seeing they were not the caricatures I’d been taught, and seeing the value of listening to people and affording them dignity—that really whet my appetite for just saying, ‘I want to do this with my life,’” Howell said.

With a relaxed attitude and a quiet voice, it only takes a few questions about what impacts him most for the passion in his work to spread across his face and around the room.

“I’m really passionate about clients that have some justice involvement in their youth,” Howell said.  “Because of the stigma attached to them.”

Howell said Youth Services of Tulsa has accepted homeless youth with varying needs and backgrounds. Many come from unstable homes, DHS, or the Office of Juvenile Affairs. Almost all of them have some family conflict or trauma.

“They’re just seen as bad,” Howell said. “This reduces a multidimensional person with goals, dreams, and complex trauma to a very one-dimensional characterization of who they are.”

It takes a person with a non-judgmental personality to work for Youth Services of Tulsa, according to assistant director Tania Pryce.

“It’s about somebody’s ability to form connections with other people,” Pryce said. And not just connections between clients and case workers. Youth Services partners with several other agencies to serve the homeless youth population.

Of the dozens of programs YST offers, one partners with the Mental Health Association for housing needs and another partners with the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma for an entrepreneurial taco food service run by clients. Union Public Schools runs G.E.D. classes in the YST facility, and the OSU School of Community Medicine helps run a medical clinic.

“No one agency can do it all,” Pryce said.

Howell said one of the biggest issues he’s noticed is that zip codes often determine life outcomes. “Clients that come from zip codes further north in Tulsa don’t have nearly as much access as clients further south.” Due to differences in education funding, and other resources, two young adults who have both experienced homelessness but come from different neighborhoods aren’t equally equipped to access the services they need.

Howell said he and his coworkers don’t judge applicants based on their past. The goal is to help them find their way to self-sufficiency.

The intake process only applies to applicants who are currently homeless, according to Howell.  After turning in an application, an admissions specialist contacts the client to come in for an evaluation.

“We get more or less a picture of their history and the things that led them to requiring our services,” Howell said.

From there, the client meets with a case manager where they engage in an informal, conversational interview. Then a round of assessments on trauma, financial needs, and medical needs follow a drug test to determine the holistic status of the applicant. After the three to five-week intake process is complete, case managers move their clients into an available space inside their mixed-housing apartment.

Half the tenants are regular paying renters, and about half are clients in the program. The full length of the program from homelessness to graduation usually takes 12-18 months.

Pryce said the organization prioritizes forgiveness over punishment. “If they make mistakes, we want to give them multiple opportunities before resorting to having them exit the program.”

From Howell’s perspective, transitional housing gives young people dignity, privacy, and autonomy while teaching them responsibility, self-sufficiency and life skills.

“Doing this kind of work, you have to let people be vulnerable, and you have to be vulnerable with them,” Howell said.

There’s reason to be hopeful for their success. This year, a groundbreaking new program called A Better Way started in Tulsa that offers housing-insecure individuals an opportunity to earn a wage by beautifying the city. Despite this and other programs, however, Tulsa’s homeless population is increasing, according to the Community Service Council.

While partnerships between private organizations and state agencies like the Office of Juvenile Affairs are expanding, Howell and Pryce both said state leaders need to fund more services to combat the rising issue of youth homelessness.

Regardless of the stresses of the job, Howell said the support system and collaboration his coworkers offer each other help make it worthwhile. But he said nothing brings him more joy than seeing his clients reach their potential.

“Seeing clients who haven’t had access, who are told they won’t amount to much—I see the light switch come on. They start to realize they’re not defined by those experiences. They’re not even defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

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