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Opinion: Our organization uses music and art to help young people overcome homelessness

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sitcov is a founder and president of Doors for Change and lives in San Diego.

When I founded Doors of Change (then called Photocharity) in 2001, our staff decided to use music and art lessons as a way to build trust with homeless youth. We have found that we can build trust with homeless youth in weeks instead of months. This means we have a much better chance of getting them off the streets before it’s too late.

Through our program Taking Music and Art to the Streets, homeless youth have the opportunity to develop artistic skills or master the basics of violin, guitar, mandolin, ukulele or keyboard. In one or two classes, you can see them transform. It increases their self-esteem. You can see it in their posture. They talk more and smile. In our loving and non-judgmental environment, young people feel safe.

Young people are encouraged to continue to participate in this program. After six lessons, they earn an instrument (or art supplies) of their choice. A total of 453 young people won the choice of an instrument or art supplies. It teaches them to set goals and shows them that we keep our word. Many young people who have earned the instrument mourn because they have never experienced this loyalty from adults in their lives. As a result, many young people trust us in one to three courses and then seek help from our case manager.

That’s why young people are most successful in breaking the cycle of homelessness, because they haven’t been homeless for many years and there may be fewer drugs, alcohol and mental illness than the adult population. Fifty percent of chronically homeless adults in San Diego began their homelessness when they were Young. If we can get homeless people off the streets, we have a good chance of preventing adult homelessness.

Currently our Taking Music & Art to the Streets program is on hiatus due to COVID-19; however, we continued to do youth advocacy and outreach remotely and provide case management with referrals as needed. During the pandemic, homeless youth have dispersed and hidden. Before COVID-19, we saw 10 to 20 homeless youth during our interventions. Now, when we go out on the streets to raise awareness, we see two or less. They are still there, but hidden. They sleep in their car and do more couch surfing.

To get in touch with them, we started putting up posters in four or five different places. The result was incredible. In February, we received 48 young people who asked us for help. We are busier than ever. In 2021, we placed 161 young people in safe housing. Over the past 12 months, we have helped place 283 people in housing. Both are records.

Another impact of the pandemic is an increase in mental health referrals. According to the homeless youth we speak with, some are under pressure because they have no housing and are at risk of being on the streets, which adds the pandemic to their stress. Compared to last year, our case managers reported a 110% increase in the number of youth seeking mental health referrals.

We felt we needed to react quickly to this red flag to prevent suicides and the increase in depression, so we launched a new program called YES: Youth Emotional Support. In addition to referrals, we provide the technology needed for mental health telehealth visits and gas cards or bus passes for in-person care. We also support co-payers and pay for their phone service. In the year since the launch of YES, we are starting to see a decrease in mental health referrals.

Since 2001, Doors of Change has helped over 15,000 homeless youth get the resources they need and helped place over 2,300 homeless youth into safe housing. We are a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and rely on our donors and community partners to further our mission. Our next fundraiser will take place on Thursday, June 30, when we will present a concert of hope featuring Grammy-nominated rock band Three Dog Night at the Moonlight Amphitheater in Vista. For tickets, visitdoorsofchange.org