RAVEN project offers outreach and drop-in services to at-risk youth

Participants at Southern Humboldt Working Together's first meeting of the new year, held last Wednesday, Jan. 8, heard a presentation from representatives of the RAVEN Project, a street outreach program and drop-in center for houseless and at-risk youth ages 10 to 21.

About a dozen community members attended last Wednesday's meeting. After the participants briefly introduced themselves, Randy Lesser and Chad Kemp of RAVEN began by explaining that the RAVEN project was created by the Youth Service Bureau of the Redwood Community Action Agency (RCAA) 20 years ago in 1994.

While RAVEN's emphasis is on homeless local youth and low-income youth at risk of homelessness, they also serve traveling youth, defined as young people who have been in Humboldt County less than 30 days.

RAVEN's drop-in center at 523 T in Eureka serves between 600 and 800 persons a year. Services at the drop-in center include shower, laundry, and kitchen; free clothing and shoes; access to computers; local resource referral; a free dinner and movie on Monday nights; and several groups and workshops.

At the drop-in center, people can obtain "survival supplies," including camping equipment like tents and sleeping bags when available, hygiene kits with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and the like, and "harm reduction kits" that include supplies for reducing the risk of sexually transmitted disease and the risks of shared needle use.

The four group workshops, which take place on different nights of the week, include the Drum Circle and Jam Session, where young people are encouraged to bring musical instruments if they have them, but there are some in-house instruments to use.

There is also an Art Workshop, with supplies and help provided by RAVEN staff, the Queer Coffee House for a spectrum of LGBT youth, and Girl's Space for young women.

Additionally, the drop-in center has a garden, which Kemp described as "awesome," that provides a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables for the center's kitchen. This past year RAVEN clients and staff grew pumpkins that they carved into jack o'lanterns, sunflowers, strawberries, artichokes, and a variety of greens, including a lot of kale, Kemp said.

RAVEN sends teams of outreach workers, young people who were once houseless or at risk themselves, onto the streets to meet youth and inform them of the project's services. The teams suggest resources and provide survival and harm reduction supplies as well.

In 2012 the outreach teams gave "survival items" to over 20,000 people in 2012, Lesser said.

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and the county's annual "point in time" survey, 21.9 % Humboldt residents under 18 years of age live in poverty, and 632 grade school and high school aged students are homeless.

Forty-three percent of the calls received by the Rape Crisis Center last year came from people under 21. Thirty-five percent of homeless youth have engaged in "survival sex," exchanging sex for housing, food, or other necessities, Lesser reported. Seventy-five to 80 percent have been involved in violent crimes.

They also see many young travelers who have come to Humboldt for festivals or jobs in the marijuana industry. "The work is really scary," Kemp observed. "Sometimes they end up stuck in the hills with no money."

The RAVEN Project follows three premises, Kemp told the group. First, "we meet the youth where they're at and address the needs they identify," he said. RAVEN offers services on request or if someone demonstrates an obvious need like hunger or nowhere to spend the night.

"We make an effort not to decide... what they should be doing," he said.

Secondly, RAVEN takes a harm reduction approach to risky behavior, offering supplies like condoms and bleach kits rather than trying to talk someone out of the behavior.

While they will try to educate people about the risks, RAVEN workers try to remain non-judgmental and non-coercive, recognizing that people engage in risky behavior for a variety of personal reasons.

There are no conditions for getting services from RAVEN other than respect for the staff and non-violence.

Finally, RAVEN tries to empower youth by offering them peer counseling, workshops where they can talk freely, resource referral, and opportunities to work with others like themselves.

Kemp first came to RAVEN as a client, he said, and got a job helping to maintain the drop-in center and helping other clients to access services. After three months of training in outreach and counseling, he became part of an outreach team.

"Few businesses will hire you when you're dirty and smelly, have no stable place to live and emotional issues. RAVEN helps you become more rooted in the community and stabilize your life," he said.

Outreach teams walk the streets of Eureka and Arcata twice a week. They go to the more rural areas of the county at least twice a month, and are in the Garberville-Redway area every other Tuesday from noon to 2:30 p.m. They usually attend the Mateel Meal on the day they are in SoHum because there are so many chances to meet homeless and traveling youth.

SHWT participants praised RAVEN for its non-judgmental approach and asked what was on their "wish list" to improve and expand their services if they had more money. Lesser and Kemp agreed that their number-one wish would be for a place to use as a safe shelter for youth.

They would also like to be able to provide a higher quality of food - "meals, not just snacks" - as part of their outreach program.

The RAVEN project is funded by a federal grant, some smaller local grants, and donations. Donations of food, clothing, camping gear, hygiene supplies, school and office supplies, garden tools and soil, and more, as well as monetary donations, are always needed.

Those interested in donating either money or goods should call 443-7099.

SHWT's general meetings usually take place at the Garberville Civic Club on Maple Lane from noon to 1:30 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month. The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 5. Everyone is welcome to attend.