Six Things I Learned from Styling Homeless Youth

We've just wrapped up two years of styling homeless youth who are in the Barista Training Program. Local nonprofits YouthCare and FareStart have partnered to run this program, giving youth aged 16-24 life skills, professional skills and additional support. I volunteer each month running styling workshops to teach youth what to wear for job interviews and at work, followed by a "shopping spree" in the YouthCare Basement Boutique. I am also fortunate enough to attend graduation ceremonies for each cohort weeks after their styling sessions.

In 2014 I wrote a post about what I've learned from styling homeless youth. As I reflect on the last two years of sessions, I'm struck by what I've learned from my clients, the youth, my support team at YouthCare and especially, my five year old son. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I'd like to share some of these lessons with you, Dear Reader. 

What I've Learned From Styling Homeless Youth 2.0

 A youth mixing and matching at a Barista Training Program styling session.

1. Know your pronouns.

I've always worked hard to be sensitive to gender identity in our styling sessions. After all, 40% of youth who experience homelessness identify as LGBTQ. Previously, when offering styling choices, I asked for those who identify as male or those who identify as female (e.g. would you like to be fitted for a bra or learn to tie a necktie?)

But this year, I discovered that even that good faith effort was not inclusive enough. So, during introductions, I started asking youth to list the pronouns they use to identify themselves — mine, for example, are "she and her." The first session I tried this technique, we had a youth who identified as, "they and them." What timing. The boutique is also organized by item type, not by gender, so that men's pants are mixed in with women's pants. Things are changing, folks. And although I admit it is hard to keep up, it's also really refreshing to see that a) youth will happily tell you their pronouns if you just ask, and b) youth who have traditional pronouns seem totally unaffected by this shift. Empathy. I love it.

 A serious post-swap haul destined for YouthCare.

2. Everyone wants to help and everyone can.

After completing their closet edits, many of my clients donate clothes that are not right for their body or their personal style to YouthCare. Other clients also host clothing swaps to benefit the YouthCare styling sessions, where any items not claimed by the guests are taken to YouthCare. I asked clients to do this and have been thrilled with the result. After all, we can't run these sessions without high quality clothes of all sizes to offer to the youth.

What I did not expect was the perpetual, high-volume stream of clothes coming my way. It doesn't matter why I'm seeing a client or friend — she probably has a bag of clothes or shoes waiting for me in her car to donate. It's unbelievable. One friend and client has taken this to an entirely new level by collecting clothes all year long in a closet at her office. Her husband just dropped off two carloads of pieces. Still other amazing folks take the time to volunteer with me and twenty clients and friends sat at the Poplin Style Direction tables at last year's YouthCare luncheon. Lucky for them, Macklemore, a strong YouthCare supporter, was the surprise guest speaker. 

 The crew after cleaning the Orion Center at YouthCare's Family Volunteer Day.

3. When I say everyone, I mean everyone.

Our five year old son has been helping me deliver clothes to YouthCare since we started the sessions. He takes being a volunteer very seriously and is pretty popular at the office, if I do say so myself. As a family, we all volunteer to clean the Orion Center once a year as well. This year both my husband and my son asked if they could do that more often. My husband also volunteers at the styling sessions, helping find men's clothes and teaching the youth how to tie neckties. This is very popular with youth who identify with all the pronouns. I told you, things are changing :) 

 Volunteers at a Barista Training Program styling session, including our partner in crime since the beginning, Lisa from the One Eighty Foundation (rocking the orange coat)

4. Your friends can be your family.

As you can imagine, our son asks lots of questions about homelessness. When I explained why youth could be homeless in the first place, that not every person is lucky enough to have a family filled with love that is safe, he responded, "That's okay. Their friends can be their family."

This is one of the great lessons of this experience. No one chooses to be homeless. These kids aren't just rebellious teenagers who don't want to follow rules. They are charming, hilarious, ambitious, thoughtful kids. They make every session fun and relaxed. They show enormous gratitude and share much-loved pieces with one another.

It's no joke out there on the streets. It's more difficult to support youth who experience homelessness because of the legal requirements to involve their legal guardians, so youth are less likely to reach out for services. But, we know, they need them. Not everyone has a parent to show them how to tie a necktie or take them bra shopping. Those aren't experiences that are nice to have — they are must-haves. If a young person doesn't have a mom or dad to take the time, then it's up to us.

 Italian leather shoes from re-souL's house collection, donated to YouthCare as part of re-souL's shoe drive for homeless youth. There's still time to  give here

5. It will never be enough.

You may have heard that Seattle, along with a number of other west coast cities, recently declared a state of emergency regarding homelessness. With over 1,000 youth experiencing homelessness on any given night in King County, the problem is real and we need some help. So, if you have coats, shoes, menswear, accessories just sitting in your closet, donate them. If you have warm supplies for the winter, donate them. If you have some extra cash, give. Use your voice to make a difference by reaching out to elected officials

Whatever you do, if this problem means something to you, I'd encourage you to do something. It's true. Whatever we do, it will never be enough. There will always be more. But every single young person who comes into our sessions shows me that it is worth the effort. 

 We created this outfit from items in YouthCare's Basement Boutique, building off of a pair of shoes donated by re-souL. All it takes is one new outfit for a job interview to help a homeless youth make the right first impression.

6. It's worth the effort.

I know you aren't really supposed to have favorites, but one of my favorite people that I've met through this process is a young vibrant woman I'll call Lilly. When I met her at our session, she was wearing an adorable black babydoll dress with bold red roses all over it. She had cute ankle socks and Mary Janes and bright red lipstick. She certainly did not look like she lived on the streets. She's one of those people who is always smiling and just brings joy to any room. I adored her from the first minute. I was lucky enough to run into her out in the city with my son. We watched the 4th of July Citizenship Ceremony together and ate lunch. She was delightful and talked to my son about anime and her multiethnic background. I ran into her again at the Orion Center when touring with a group potential volunteers. She was one of the lucky few that slept at the shelter that night. Every time I saw her, she was a dream. Every time I saw her she was wearing the same dress, the same shoes, the same lipstick. Every time I saw her, she was homeless.

Here's the thing — she was still very hopeful. The last time I saw her she told me she had a voucher for housing and was hoping to wrap up the details any day. She found support and a sense of security at YouthCare and she was on her way to normalcy. These styling sessions don't save the world, but they did help Lilly. They helped her know that someone saw her. Really saw her. Every piece of "really nice" clothing that the youth discover in that basement boutique helps them know that someone cares enough to offer up the good stuff, not just old, outdated pieces. What have I learned from styling homeless youth? I've learned that being seen isn't everything, but it is close to it.