Safe Horizon’s Streetwork Project helps young people experiencing homelessness find community, connection, and stability. Our staff is at the core of all we do and no one exemplifies the commitment to helping homeless youth like the newest Director of the Streetwork Drop-In, Sebastien Vante.
Sebastien Vante has been with the program for nearly a decade starting as a Daily Services Coordinator, then the Associate Director of Sexual Health, and now Director of the Streetwork Drop-In.
Get to know Sebastien, what he thinks sets Streetwork apart, and our commitment to youth leadership.
Q. Why do you think youth leadership is so important for the Streetwork Project?
Youth Leadership is very, very important at Streetwork because – especially in working with the population that we serve, who’ve been in institutions or residential treatment settings where there’s no options, no choice, no community being built – we want to give youth the opportunity to feel like there’s choice, and we build community in our space so they experience ownership of our program.
Q. How does that opportunity for feedback affect how young people relate to Streetwork?
Well, you know, it’s really hard for folks to be in a position where they have to ask of others. And so we really want to eliminate that hesitancy. Youth know after coming to Streetwork that, “This is mine, I’m entitled to these things, I deserve these things, and I shouldn’t have feel bad for asking for something specific.” We’re happy to give them the blue toothbrush, the organic conditioner, the Dr. Bronner’s brand, or a specific style of t-shirt. How we center their choice is part of the reason why they keep returning. It’s part of the reason why a lot of the referrals are not from other agencies but from word-of-mouth. They tell their friends, “This is how Streetwork treats you, this is how they do things,” and I think that’s really important.
Q. How does that component, of youth leadership and voice, affect the drop-in space?
It also adds to safety. When clients feel like the space is theirs, even though it’s our responsibility to maintain a safe space, they also take part in it too. There’s a sense of ownership. Like you’ll see a client pick up a piece of trash that doesn’t belong to them because they feel that sense of, “I don’t want it in our space.” Or if they’re seeing something that’s amiss or brewing – like they know a client’s got beef with another client somewhere outside of the agency – they’ll pull staff aside to let them know. So it really lends twofold: it ensures the safety of the space, and it helps us do our job.
Q. Speaking of how things evolve, how has youth leadership changed over the years at Streetwork?
I think what we’re seeing now is that we’re getting a lot of new clients. But they’re not clients who are new to homelessness, or even new to RHY programs – they’re youth who know our clients. As we get to know them, we’re building relationships with these new young folks who may have had negative experiences at other programs. It’s been interesting trying to get these new folks involved in youth leadership. It’s new to them, but there’s interest. Like a lot of the folks have participated in our groups after just a month or even a day in. We’re really trying to reestablish that youth voice component by getting them comfortable with sharing their input, so that the newer people can feel invested in this space.
Q. As newer clients come in, does their voice help keep Streetwork adaptable?
It certainly helps with adaptability, I mean if there’s anything that we learned in the pandemic, for sure. But also just that Streetwork is like a living organism. It shifts, it moves, it adapts. We make assessments as we go. We get feedback. We take what’s relevant. We take what we are hearing from clients and shift accordingly. Even the fact that we have weekend hours, for example, a lot of that is also client voice, and our DYCD providers recognizing that there’s a need… So it’s fairly new in my time, and I’ve been here for almost eight years.
Q. How does youth leadership work differently at Streetwork compared to other RHY programs?
I think in that we actually take in the clients’ feedback. You know, it’s not always unique to have a Client Advisory Board. But what is unique is actually taking those voices into account. You can provide the space for folks to share and to air grievances and have a whole process, but are you actually taking those things into consideration? Are you altering? Are you shifting? Are you bringing it to the space? I think what makes us different is that we actually take those things into account. And I think you can see in that in the way youth respond to our program.
Q. It seems like youth leadership doesn’t just affect clients, but staff as well. How do new staff respond? Are they surprised when they come to Streetwork and see that commitment to youth voice, like in the interview process?
Yeah, I think a lot of the times folks get nervous when they hear that part of the hiring process includes a group interview with Streetwork clients. But then, especially in the early interviews, we discuss our anti-racist and our anti-oppressive approach. Part of that is giving clients voice in determining who they work with, and so folks realize, like, “Wow, that’s really empowering to the young people.” So yeah, there’s nervousness, but then they also appreciate how that’s just how much we care about our young people and their experiences.
Q. As you mentioned, Safe Horizon staff talk a lot about salary equity and anti-racism. Does that come up with the young people at Streetwork as well?
It does, for sure. I think clients see that that the people who work with them, look like them. And that helps with their engagement. They see people who look like them at all levels. So whether it’s direct staff, the coordinator or the supervisor, directors, our AVP, they see themselves. That’s a big deal.
Q. Given all that Streetwork is already doing to center youth voices, is there something you wish you could do more of?
I think what would be really great is if we could have more case managers, because I think a lot about our staff, and how much of our work is respond to youth and being available to them. The work is always going to get done, right, because the clients need it, and that’s our job. But…at what expense? That’s why we see a lot of high turnover in the case management positions, because it’s a lot of work. So it would be good to have more case managers to avoid burnout and to really spread our reach so that case mangers can manage their caseloads and be more available to center those things like youth voice and leadership.