When Helping Hurt.


There have been so many joys and a lot of sorrow. Recently I have established a host home program for homeless youth through several partnerships in the Sacramento area. It has been a goal of mine since the conception of RiseAbove to offer this as a resource to the homeless youth in Sacramento, which is so exciting to be able to offer a program like this in just over a year! Ok, I will stop bragging. I was just so excited to finally offer some type of housing to the kids that I work with. I thought I had found a great candidate to host, and a great host home openers. The family who had decided to host her was great. The mom had experience in helping youth with trauma and she herself had experienced childhood trauma and had gone through counseling and other programs to overcome those trauma. They had two great kids in the house, the dad was not just present and he was pretty cool. The girl who they would be hosting, although quiet, she seemed to be driven and self-motivated. We will call the host family the Martinez’s and the young woman who was being hosted we will call Katy.

In the initial interview, Katy seemed apprehensive to be part of the program. Katy had extreme social anxiety. I assured her that the Martinez’s were great and would be sensitive to hear struggle. She also was overwhelmed by moving to a different area. She had been living downtown. Downtown was where all the services that she knew and used often for her survival over the course of 9 months of being homeless. Sensing her growing anxiety, I offered to drive her around the neighborhood where the Martinez’s lived. As we drove around I pointed out stores and hotels that she could apply for jobs at. I saw her anxiety subside. We were approaching the conclusion of our tour and I saw her smile and she released a big sigh. Then she said “I just feel like this nightmare is finally going to be over.” It was an impactful moment for me. It felt good to do good.

Then next step was to have Katy meet the Martinez’s. That’s what we did. The meeting went well. Ok, if I am being honest, it was a little awkward. Katy hardly talked and the Martinez’s were looking to me to bridge the gap. The problem was my own relationship with Katy was not very strong so I was unable to be that bridge. Despite some internal feelings of apprehension, we moved forward. Before we moved on I knew that I wanted to make sure and communicate my expectations very clearly. To me it was simple, look for a job and look for stable housing and use the next 30 days wisely. We planned weekly check ins where we discussed her progress and the next week’s schedule. Katy wanted to be a writer, which I thought was great. I thought it was healthy to have goals for her future. In my mind, her becoming a writer was a goal to aspire to.  To Katy it was a job to pursue now. There was a disconnect. So, when we did our check in she said that she looked for work, but our definitions of looking for work were very different. As the month went on there were bigger issues brewing. The biggest was communication. She did not want to talk to me directly or even to Mrs. Martinez whom she had built a reporte with. She locked herself in the room.  Her aversion to social interactions got so bad that she even took meals behind closed doors. The situation became uncomfortable. After a few failed attempts to get her into a more stable environment her time at the host home came to a close. The first hosting in my host home program was a failure. I failed to successfully help this young girl who just weeks before was glad to see light at the end of the tunnel. I failed to successfully vet applicants and prepare and support my host family. There were so many things I wish I had done better. Having been a homeless youth who was afraid and uncertain I knew the feeling of disappointment Katy was feeling and the heartache of watching a vulnerable young girl once again enter homelessness.

Failure is only bad if you give up and you don’t learn anything. I wanted to give up, this feeling felt really, really crappy and I didn’t want to experience this feeling again. And really did not want to think about how I could improve the program because after Katy there was no program. But, I don’t want to lose faith in a model that had a lot to do with me being able to overcome my own homelessness. So, I retraced my steps.

Here is where I went wrong. (Well at least a few ways I went wrong. Otherwise the list would go on and on.)

  1. I had a plan and I didn’t stick to it!
    In my program outline I established a requirement for the host home program that included participation and completion in our coaching program teaching soft skills in social and emotional health. With Katy, I saw her immediate need and I ignored my own rules trusting my gut instead of the carefully thought out plan for the program’s success. Flexibility is important but not at the cost of being ineffective.


  1. I was too timid in addressing red flags and concerns of the host family.
    There were plenty of times where during this hosting where the Martinez’s were telling me in subtle ways that the hosting was not working. Katy was quiet, went to bed early, and woke up early. Aside from Mr. Martinez, the family stayed up late, woke up late and liked to hang out with each other. Katy even stopped talking to them. The only times that she spoke to them was when she needed something. Which being able to communicate your needs is very important, but she often lacked tact and did away with common pleasantries. Those behaviors were not uncommon in the homeless youth population. What made this significant was the frequency to which it was happening and her unwillingness to address the issues or hear them out. I should have heard them better and acted. I not only had an obligation to Katy, but I had equal obligation the Martinez family.


  1. I mistook potential for motivation as the same thing.
    I have a gift and a curse that allows me to see past a person’s current state, look past that and see the potential. It helps me see the best in people, it also makes me blind to what is in front of me at the present. Katy was smart, had a goal was in great need. I saw this and I saw a motivated young woman, but it actually was raw potential. She did have a goal and she was smart, but both of those things needed work. Potential often exists without motivation and it remains just potential. I ignored one of my own rules about helping youth. They have to be willing to make changes and move forward. I was so excited for the potential and the opportunity to fill the need that I didn’t even consider if she was willing. Katy was not ready for the kind of help that I was able to provide.

I want to help youth any way that I can. This was hard for me as it was probably difficult for Katy and the Martinez’s. It hurt me knowing that I was not wise enough to see the possible negative outcomes. It hurt the Martinez’s knowing that someone they had helped would again be on the streets. For Katy, it undoubtedly hurt to experience another let down. At the end of the day, my hope is to do better. Do better at reading people, diffusing crisis, being a help to my community and better at making good choices. The outcome in my first hosting was less than ideal for sure. I learned a lot and am looking forward to the future of this program.

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