The newest addition to the Clinic’s services this year includes a partnership with Outreach, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Indianapolis that helps homeless youth. Although many of the youth have legal needs, most were not coming to our traditional intake sites. Therefore, Outreach CEO Eric Howard and Legal Clinic Executive Director Chris Purnell worked together to find a better way to serve this population’s legal needs, and thus, the Homeless Youth Justice Program (HYJP) was created.
A pivotal element of HYJP is the Program Manager, Ben Hayes. Unlike the two attorneys who work cases for Outreach’s youth, Ben’s position is more nebulous. His job is to build relationships and to create a bridge between their kids and our attorneys. Most of the youth that go through Outreach know what it’s like to be burned by someone they were supposed to be able to trust—in fact, that is usually an inciting incident to them becoming homeless in the first place. “Every one of them is going to have a different story,” Ben says. The one thing they all have in common though? Trauma. According to a series of internal surveys conducted by Outreach in 2014, 71% of their young woman said they were sexually abused before the age of 18 and 88% of their young men saw their mother beaten before the age of 18.
To outsiders, these kids may seem like troublemakers, or like they chose the path they’re on. But what these outsiders don’t see is how badly hurt these kids have been, often by their own parents. This is why Ben’s position is necessary. “They’re in a constant state of fight or flight,” says Ben. “To start a relationship with these kids you have to show that you’re willing to invest.” Often, they are accustomed to seeing people come and go and so trust comes very slowly. “I guarantee there are some who are like, ‘We’ll see how long he lasts,’” Ben adds.
But Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic and Outreach, Inc. are not only aligned in the populations they choose to serve, but also in the reason they choose to serve. And that reason is Christ. Ben says that he’s used to hearing people question this work, telling him that homeless people will take advantage of him. And Ben says the relationships can be difficult at first when kids are in survival mode. This is when faith becomes paramount along with putting words into actions—loving these kids through their mistakes and slowly helping to transform their lives.
Of course, this love and forgiveness also must go hand-in-hand with boundaries. “They will push and push and push those boundaries,” Ben says, “But they actually respect people who will uphold those boundaries. It’s teaching them those things they should have picked up when they first became teenagers.” Ultimately, Outreach and the Clinic want to work together to provide these youth with the care, services, and training they need to lead fulfilling, self-sustaining lives.
And that includes fun moments too. Recently, Ben had the chance to drive a group of kids to SkyZone for lunch and a day of jumping on trampolines and playing basketball. “I saw them for the first time breathe. Not drowning, not fighting for stuff; they were just a bunch of kids that were hanging out together and sitting on dry land for once,” Ben says. “That’s what Outreach does.”