Get to Know a Grantee: Ambassadors for Christ Youth Ministries, of Houston, Texas, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas

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June 16, 2022

In celebration of Juneteenth, the Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) Clearinghouse recently spoke with RHY program grantee Ambassadors for Christ Youth Ministries (AFC Youth Ministries), which originated in Houston, Texas in 2006, and added a second location in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 2017. Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to ensure that all enslaved people were freed. The troops’ arrival was two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Both AFC Youth Ministries locations serve predominantly African American youth and young adults experiencing homelessness (80 percent of clientele in Houston and 90 percent in Pine Bluff), and Juneteenth provides an opportunity for AFC Youth Ministries to educate their clients about the significance of the holiday, while providing much needed housing and outreach services to them.

"We view Juneteenth as one of the special holidays in American history," says Cornelious Ford, the RHY Manager in Houston. "It's right up there with the Fourth of July. Houston is a big city, with events happening all over during Juneteenth. Kids know the name [Juneteenth], but don't really know the story behind the name.” Both locations use weekly positive youth development (PYD) sessions, which often focus on what is going on in the culture, to talk about Juneteenth with their TLP clients. If clients want to participate in Juneteenth events, "we make a gigantic effort to see that youth are able to get to and from the events safely," says Kenneth Sams, the Houston location Community Liaison

Juneteenth is also a focus at the AFC-Pine Bluff location. "With our clients and our community here, we've made Juneteenth about real, equitable change," says Shanta Rice, Senior Project Manager, AFC-Pine Bluff. "We make an effort to have PYD sessions to explain why this is a holiday, why we are celebrating, and what involvement our clients can have to make a change. We hope that it will help us advance further toward equality, diversity, and change."

As its name suggests, AFC Youth Ministries is a faith-based organization that serves all homeless youth in the same way. "We just show respect and love for everyone, no matter the race, creed, color, or sexual orientation. We all are here to love one another and respect one another," says Sams. Both locations receive funding from the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s (FYSB) RHY Transitional Living Program (TLP), which provides shelter and support services for up to 18-months to youth ages 18 to 21 experiencing homelessness or housing instability, and the FYSB RHY Street Outreach Program (SOP), which connects with and serves young people living on the street. AFC-Houston serves about 1,500 youth each year in the SOP and the Pine Bluff location serves about 900.

The youth and young adults AFC Youth Ministries works with have almost all experienced abuse and trauma. Some come from abusive families, some have been attacked on the street while they were experiencing homelessness, and some have lost loved ones. The TLPs in both locations offer housing for up to 18 months and training in the skills needed to be independent and productive, in a nurturing environment with stability and safety, reports Rice. The programs include mental health, medical, and dental services, case management, setting and pursuing educational and career goals, and building recreational and life skills. The SOPs often conduct outreach in the same locations in their cities, so that youth can rely on finding them there. The types of services provided in the SOP depend on the clients' needs and include referrals for housing, legal services, counseling, help in a crisis, and the provision of hygiene products, food, and other supplies.

The work of AFC Youth Ministries has resulted in much success, with some truly outstanding achievements for their clients. The Houston team tells of a young woman in the TLP who maintained a 4.0 grade point average in high school, was offered a variety of scholarships, and ultimately enrolled at Brown University. AFC Youth Ministries stayed in touch with her throughout the fall and welcomed her back for the Christmas break.

Like many other TLP grantees, AFC requires that clients maintain a savings account and deposit at least 30 percent of their earnings. In Houston, one person who was sleeping outside or at a friend’s house before enrolling in the TLP, was able to save more than $8,000 after enrolling in the program. Upon exiting the program, he gained employment and was able to acquire an apartment. "This young man’s experience is just a great story of resilience and a nice picture of what the TLP is supposed to do," says Ford. "That story may not resonate as much with everybody," says Sams, "but our goal for any youth who comes into our program is to prepare them for independent living."

In Pine Bluff, a high school senior was sleeping in her car in the school parking lot. A staff member at the school referred her to AFC Youth Ministries, which was able to provide her with housing, counseling, and case management, so she could finish her senior year with a 4.0 grade point average. AFC also focused on helping her create high-school memories, including going to the prom. AFC staff escorted her through her senior walk at school, as a family member would. After graduation, with AFC Youth Ministries help, she rented an apartment, enrolled in the local college, and accepted a job in correctional services.

In addition to connecting with homeless or runaway youth by word of mouth, AFC Youth Ministries uses Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as an additional means of outreach. They also rely on referrals from other service organizations. About 80 percent of Houston clients are referrals from the 211 telephone service, a free, anonymous social service hotline available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year provided by the United Way of Greater Houston.

Perhaps the most challenging outreach for AFC Youth Ministries is to connect with youth who are currently victims of human trafficking. These vulnerable youth will only speak with AFC SOP staff very briefly, as typically they are being watched, and SOP staff usually only have enough time to offer contact information or a resource card to these youth. Recently, the Houston team held a street event to raise awareness about human trafficking and to provide an opportunity for contacting and providing help to victimized youth. The event included music, free food, and the distribution of clothes, condoms, hand sanitizers, and more.

In Houston, AFC Youth Ministries has numerous partners. Among them are schools, government agencies, organizations who work with youth transitioning to independence such as the HAY Center, the DePelchin Children's Center, the Covenant House, and Unlimited Visions, a drug rehabilitation and recovery provider focusing on preventing substance abuse. They also partner with Houston Threads, which provides new clothing, shoes, and accessories to teens in need of support, the Green House International Church, which supplies daily hot meals to TLP residents. Another partner, Christ Embassy Church, supplies holiday meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas, gifts for the holidays from the clients' wish lists, and items for TLP apartments like lamps or microwave ovens, and the Forest Park Westheimer Funeral Home supplies apartment items, clothing, and gifts for clients. Another key partner is the Villa Serena Community, which owns 20 apartment complexes in Houston, provides office space for the AFC Youth Ministries TLP, and donates space for the drop-in center and north office. Villa Serena also hires former clients from the AFC Youth Ministries TLP for jobs that include receptionist, auto mechanics, ground and pool porters, and maintenance, including painting and plumbing. It also rents apartments to those who have completed the TLP, reducing or eliminating some of the initial rental fees and using their time at the TLP as rental history.

Among the Pine Bluff location partners are multiple school systems, the juvenile justice system and juvenile courts, the Arkansas Department of Human Services, local police and sheriff's departments, the Salvation Army, the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church and its Ravens Nest food pantry, and the local community college. Also, the University for Arkansas at Pine Bluff provides social work interns to support AFC Youth Ministries staff and tickets to university sports events for TLP youth.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, AFC Youth Ministries continued to help runaway and homeless youth. Both TLP locations used many safety precautions, including mask wearing, temperature checks, and implementing disinfecting procedures for rooms dedicated to housing quarantined clients. Extraordinarily, there were no COVID-19 cases reported at the Houston TLP. In Pine Bluff, the TLP also remained open during the pandemic and housed some local university youth when their dormitories closed and they were stranded. AFC Youth Ministries housed them as TLP residents.

The SOPs in both locations, however, were far more affected by the pandemic due to their mission of operating among the population and providing direct outreach in the community. Though using COVID-19 safety precautions, SOP activities were halted for a short time during the height of the pandemic; however, they have since then been back to full operation.

When asked for their insights in reaching out to runaway and homeless youth, the AFC Youth Ministries teams in Houston and Pine Bluff offer these suggestions. "The relationship is everything," says Ford of AFC-Houston. "We do a lot of staff training centered around relationship building. Another important thing to remember when you are working with homeless individuals is to understand trauma-informed care. Without that understanding, it is so easy to damage the relationship with your clients, even by simply raising your voice in conversation with them." Rice, from Pine Bluff, says, "we also introduce them to the freedom of choice, as a lot of them don't know they have a choice. We offer a variety of programming and allow clients to choose in which programs they want to be involved, and we support them in that. We just walk with them along the way."