Blair Franklin envisions a day when there is little need for homeless services for Baltimore City youth. As Executive Director of the Youth Empowered Society (YES) Drop-In Center, he leads an organization whose mission statement says it “prevents and eliminates youth homelessness through the synergy of youth and ally partnerships.” That’s the ultimate goal, but for now, Baltimore’s only drop-in program for youth experiencing homelessness is trying to reach more of the city’s 1,600 youth who are unhoused at any given time. YES serves about 300 youth per year, and is struggling to accommodate them in its small rowhouse at 23rd and Charles streets.
YES is not a shelter, but rather a safe space where people ranging in age from 14 to 25 can grab a meal, take a shower, do laundry, connect with a case manager, learn about housing opportunities, participate in job training, learn to navigate the legal system, and more. It is also a place where they can find rest and refuge, companionship with other youth experiencing homelessness, and a staff of both peers and adult allies who are familiar with their challenges. The organization has been a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City for about three years, and in 2018 it was one of nine projects or programs under the Strong City umbrella that won funding from the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund.
“We don’t have enough space for everyone we see every day,” says Franklin, pointing to the need for more room for youth to engage in more activities, as well as quiet areas where someone can work on a resume, for example. Part of the $230,000 award from the BCYF will help them afford a larger space in the same neighborhood, which Franklin noted is a centrally located and LGBTQ-friendly part of the city.
In addition, the BCYF funding will allow YES to expand its services around workforce and leadership development – for example, by making stipends available for youth to attend job training programs. YES partners with employers to open up opportunities for older youth to build skills and find jobs.
“Some of the BCYF funding is going to help us have the capacity to deepen our youth leadership and workforce efforts as well, connecting to things like advocacy, jobs, and flexible housing assistance,” Franklin says. “This will allow us to support young people as they engage in youth leadership opportunities.”
YES was started six years ago by young people who had themselves experienced homelessness and who recognized that Baltimore was lacking “a safe space to access services that also valued their lived experience,” Franklin says. As the organization has evolved, having Strong City as a fiscal sponsor has been beneficial, he says, “largely because we were growing as an organization and needed to increase support around financial management and HR – a space Strong City was doing work in – so it seemed like a really good partnership.
“Fiscal sponsorship has been incredibly valuable as we have been growing, providing a solid foundation for us to have the kind of back office support that’s needed to do our work,” Franklin says, adding that YES’ long-term goal is to become an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
At YES, advocacy goes hand-in-hand with service. That means building coalitions by forming deep partnerships in the community, as well as lobbying and testifying to ensure that youth homelessness is treated seriously in City Hall and Annapolis. Centering youth voice has always been a priority for YES, one that will be featured even more prominently in the future, Franklin says, as the organization’s “youth leadership work builds an advocacy platform and agenda around the kind of change needed to make homelessness as rare and brief as possible.”
Franklin sees the Youth Fund as a potential turning point for Baltimore’s nonprofit community in terms of how the needs of young people are addressed.
“The fund is a huge deal, because the process by which the fund came into existence – the level of advocacy by community folks to make it happen, and having the selection process go through the community – is really important,” he says. “We’re honored to be named, and it’s a testament to the really awesome community work that has happened here.”