The Unaccompanied Students Initiative mission is to provide a safe, stable home for students experiencing homelessness in Laramie County, Wyoming.
The Strong Families Action Team is the collaborative team developed from the Laramie County Community Partnership (LCCP). The Unaccompanied Student Initiative became the focus for this action team due to the strong need for a focus on the young homeless population in Laramie County, Wyoming.
Who We Serve
In Wyoming, there are 1,400 students in kindergarten through high school identified as homeless. Of those students, 25 percent live in Laramie County, Wyoming. Of this 25 percent, 39 are unaccompanied meaning that they are homeless on their own without a family member. We serve those unaccompanied students that are currently enrolled in high school in Laramie County, Wyoming. Please watch these videos for more information:
Benefits of Initiative
There are many benefits to the community and the students from this initiative. By providing a safe and stable home setting, it will help get students off the streets. The initiative provides resources to the students that help them resolve issues and remain in school. This increases the likelihood that the students will graduate high school and thus helping to increase Laramie County's high school graduation rate. The students will learn life lessons which will help them improve their wage-earning abilities while still in high school. Through all the resources and the stable environment, this will encourage these students to become active and productive memners of their communities.
Future Plans of Initiative
With the Unaccompanied Students Initiative, the aim is to complete construction on two student residences. The action team and partnership are actively raising money for this cause. The money raised with go towards building the residences and cost associated with the build. These costs include: architectural and engineering fees, construction, furnishings, household items, utilities, maintenance, toiletries, and meals. Both homes will include the following key features: a living room, a kitchen. five student single bedrooms, one master suite with bathroom for the parent suite, two student bathrooms (toilet and shower separated), a study room, laundry room, garage, and yard.
Snapshot of Living Situation
A snapshot of the living situation:
- The home will be staffed with house parents that will be responsible for the students' schedule, meals and mentoring them through the transition into adulthood.
- The house parents will live full-time at the residence.
- The students will live in the home Sunday night through Friday morning. The student will be connected to family, a friend, or a host home to stay at during the weekend. This will help to promote the students' independence and connection to their community.
- The students will be required to attend high school and be progressing towards their diplomas. They will be encouraged to participate in school activities or have employment.
- The students will work with the house parents to build constructive relationships and support networks within their community
Is the Initiative Working?
In the Unaccompanied Students initiative, we utilized a variety of Scale Concepts. Those concepts are listed below.
• We included people with lived experience in the design of all projects and programs
• We found the feeling when we changed the name from homeless youth to unaccompanied students (this is a tactic from the book Switch)
• Also inside of Unaccompanied Students we shrunk the change (also from Switch) as we looked at the high school graduation rate. We decided we wanted to move that total number, but shrunk the change by focusing exclusively on homeless students.
Fail Forward Story
In the spring of 2015, the city of Cheyenne made a lot available to the Unaccompanied Students Initiative (USI) on which to build a residence for students experiencing homelessness. The first step before construction was to gain a variance on the property from the city council. One portion of this process required a public comment period at a city council meeting. The USI team was required to send letters to all residences within 300 feet of the donated property to inform neighbors of the opportunity to provide public comment.
We came to learn there would be a great deal of opposition at the city council meeting, and neighbors were unhappy with the news a residence for “homeless youth” would be built in their subdivision. The USI team decided to push pause the variance process and invite the neighbors to a more informal meeting to talk through the project and gain feedback from those who would be living nearby.
The community meeting was schedule for a weekday evening at the Boys and Girls Club, which is located very close to the lot where the residence was to be built. The meeting lasted more than 2 hours and was contentious from start to finish. More than one participant threatened to sue the USI leaders, and some went so far as to say they would move away from the neighborhood should this project proceed to completion. Many of the attendees candidly remarked they feared for the safety of their own children, and believed their property values would decrease should these “homeless youth” move into the neighborhood.
It was decided after the meeting that the residence should not be built in this neighborhood. The USI team huddled to discuss next steps and considered the following questions:
Was the project presented to the community in an effective way?
How could the neighbors have been pulled into the process sooner?
Why was the phrase “homeless youth” used with such contempt and apparent fear?
The first step was to rebrand the effort. After researching other projects across the
country, it was decided to begin referring to the project as the “Unaccompanied
Students Initiative”. It seemed to the
group “unaccompanied students” should conjure a much more positive mental
picture compared to “homeless youth”.
“Unaccompanied Students”, it was thought, would help others see these
young people as valued members of the community who need a little extra
support. This small changed paid off
almost immediately. The response from
the community and key decision makers (legislators, city council, the district
attorney, etc…) was positive. The
community was much more engaged and offering support for the effort.
The next decision by the USI team was a way to answer the first two questions. It was decided with the next piece of donated property (the group was in negotiations to secure another lot shortly after the other location was turned back to the city) that neighbors would be included in decision making at every step. Prior to any plans being submitted to the city for approval of developing the property, the USI team reached out to the neighbors (everyone within 300 feet of the property) and provided them with contact information so they could ask questions or voice concerns. This time around, not a single complaint was filed, and not a single negative phone call was received.
The USI team, in the language of Switch, “found the feeling” in the community with the branding change from “homeless youth” to “unaccompanied students”. “Students” brings to mind young people who are pursuing education and seeking to better themselves. Conversely, right or wrong, “homeless youth” created a different, negative image in the minds of many. The Not in My Backyard groups came out in force when they were presented with the possibility of homeless youth being invited into their neighborhood. The support and reception of USI’s efforts has been much more positive following a simple name change and ensuring all people impacted by the work have an opportunity to contribute to the conversation prior to decisions being made.