The University District Youth and Community Project, which began as a pilot program at last year’s University District Street Fair, has matured nicely in its first year and is poised for continued growth, its coordinator says.
The project, sponsored by the UW School of Social Work, made its public debut last spring with University District homeless youth collecting donations from new devices called “giving meters” along University Way NE. Money collected was matched by local merchants and used to pay youth involved in various projects.
Rick Eberhardt, a UW program specialist and coordinator of the Partnership For Youth, said in the year since their installation, giving meters and matching funds have totaled about $1,550 that was then paid in stipends to 65 youth who worked about 250 hours on local improvement projects.
With outreach to youth as its goal, the program also prompted meetings between young people and local police, informally called Doughnut Dialogues, which have served to break down communication barriers between the youth and law enforcement.
“The last street fair was the first time we even had any opportunity to communicate to the public that this is the project we’re forming,” Eberhardt said. “And last year was the first time we paid youth to do positive work in the community.”
Last year and again at this month’s street fair, youth sold buttons with the message “Peace Begins at Home,” he said, and handed out literature to passers-by that described the often violent or abusive circumstances that can cause the young to leave their family homes for the street. Such concerns have caused populations of street youth to rise in recent years, Eberhardt said, to beyond what any shelters or support programs can handle.
Eberhardt said a UW class on homelessness matched students with the street youth who were selling buttons, helping give out information about homelessness. For street youth, he said, “There’s not much to do during the day, and those who are successful at selling buttons feel good about it — and they’ve made a connection with people on the street separate from being homeless.”
He said, “These youth took ownership over that booth and felt like, This is our place at the Street Fair.”
And though some of the meters weren’t functioning properly during the 2004 Street Fair, the young vendors did well in their street fair button sales nonetheless, Eberhardt said. In all, 1,000 buttons were sold at $1 each, which provided $500 in payment for the vendors and $500 for the U-District Youth and Community Project fund, which will pay stipends for other community projects. An additional $325 raised by UW law students will be used to pay for more Doughnut Dialogues.
He said the U-District Youth and Community Project will continue to look for ways to connect local youth with the community in ways that benefit both. Upcoming projects involving street youth include more discussions with police, beautification of The Ave and conferences between young people and local merchants.
Eberhardt said the giving meters and buttons are not ends in themselves — they are tools to achieve greater communication and awareness of the problems facing street youth.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “It means our community is in a place where it wants to be part of giving youth and young adults on the street a more active and integrated role” in their own destinies.
But the progress did not come without effort. Eberhardt added, “To me, this project is successful only because of all the hard work done to get to this place.”