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Homelessness is often called one of the great tragedies of contemporary society.  By and large, it’s also considered a humanitarian challenge that we have the potential and tools to overcome.

For those who don’t follow the issue closely, it may surprise you to learn that 1 out of every 3 homeless people are under the age of 18, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.  This translates to more than 1-million youth who experience homelessness each year in America.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness states “there are limited resources to help youth reconnect with their families, find safety from the streets, or provide the support needed to prepare for independent living.  Instead, youth are often left to fend for themselves, facing survival on the streets, recruitment by gangs, exposure to drugs, and sexual exploitation.  Thousands of youth who seek shelter are turned away each year.”

In April, 2011 Congress proposed a $121 million budget for their Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs and Congress is potentially looking to appropriate $135 million for fiscal year 2012.

Through this funding, KooDooZ founder, Lee Fox, was invited by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Training and Technical Assistance Centers (RHYTTAC) to develop a 6-hour workshop entitled:  Street Networks to Social Networks:  How New Media Can Bridge Kid To Community and Serve Runaway and Homeless Youth.  Lee’s clinic provides Homeless Services personnel with invaluable new ways to reach runaway and homeless youth through social media channels.   Her next clinic will take place in Seattle, on July 27th, 2011.

My interview with Lee Fox on social media and homeless youth:

Q: What makes you an expert on homeless youth?

I’m not an expert on homeless youth, but I have spent the last 4 years working with kids from all walks of life.  More specifically, I consider my expertise to be broader.  My focus is on North America’s Generation Z.

Q: Explain:  who is Generation Z?

Today it’s kids roughly 16 years and younger whose world views have been shaped by such events as: Katrina, 911 and the recession.  And just like every other generation, GenZ is multi-faceted: sometimes described as altruistic, other times as self-absorbed.  But there is one thing that holds that generation together, and that’s social and new media.

                Q: So, your start-up, KooDooZ, is a social media for social good site.
Was it developed to serve vulnerable youth?

The quick answer is, no.  KooDooZ was conceived because I wanted something better for my own children online.  More specifically, I wanted to create an online space that would give them a call to action in the real world.  Essentially, intertwining virtual and virtuous spaces.  But during the KooDooZ entrepreneurial journey, I discovered that the organizations most receptive to my vision happened to be serve disadvantaged youth.  So even though my product was not developed for that population of children, (in fact it was more to serve them), the bi-product of speaking with anti-gang police coalitions, and my time with speaking with the kids at Boys & Girls Clubs and Police Activities Leagues afforded invaluable insights about underprivileged youth. 

Q: So what was your big take-away?

First and foremost: kids are kids.  Clearly a runaway or homeless youth faces different challenges than a “Leave It To Beaver” kid, but with the exception of youth who are battling addition or mental health issues, today’s youth, whether living on the streets, couch-surfing or in their homes – they all have the capacity to be digitally wired and online.  So I believe adults serving youth have to be able to connect with them in both places.

Q: But most runaway and homeless youth don’t want to be found, so what are they doing online?

They’re being kids.  They’re gaming.  They’re texting.  They’re hooking up.  They may not be using social technology exactly the way an everyday kids do — but just as the homeless have their street networks, there are online networks in which they hang out too.


Q: But how are they getting online?

Public libraries, schools, Starbucks, you name it.  In the past, digital divides were very specific.   We could draw a line in the sand around generations and socio-economic groups too.  But today, most public libraries across the nation have free internet access as well as computers for anyone to use.  Even families which can’t afford a home, find the resources for a cell phone – maybe a prepaid plan, to be sure.  But they’re still connected.  Homelessness does not equal offline.


Q: Let’s get back to you just said: “The homeless have their street networks and online networks too.”  What do you mean by that?

That old saying, “birds of a feather flock together” is just as true online as it is on the streets.  The trick of the trade for Homeless Services has always been to find the “street hang-outs” and then give the homeless information about how to get to a safe place.  So when I say “street networks to online (or social) networks,” that’s what I mean – find out where the homeless youth are online.


Q: So are you saying that this clustering together a characteristic of homeless youth?

Oh no, not at all.  I first learned of this fact from Nick Christakis, an acclaimed social scientist who wrote: “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives” in which he documented the phenomenon of people with certain physical sizes self-selecting into groups online.  And then, more recently, dana boyd, a well known social media researcher, released a whitepaper which examines self-segregation online.

Q: And is there?

Sure.  You could almost call it “digital ghettos.”

Q: Go on…

Like that African-American and Latino teens tend to hang out more in MySpace while white and Asian teens hang out more in Facebook.  There are tiers — or ‘hoods —  within every space.  People within a self-selected population like to carve out and hang out in their own niche.


Q: Can you give a specific example of how homeless youth are self-selecting?

Sure.  Just a few months back there was an amazing finding by Eric Rice, who’s an assistant professor at USC School of Social Work.

He’s been studying social networking among homeless youth because he wanted to create interventions to combat risky sexual behaviors and drug-use within that population.

He figured – and rightly so – that social media was being used for “hook-ups.”  In other words, the kids could connect with drug-dealers, johns, gang members and so on at a much faster rate and easier rate.

But the ground-breaking part of his study, was that he also discovered that the social networks helped educate homeless youth about HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.  So if the kids discussed love online, they were less likely to engage in “exchange sex” (which is sex for drugs, housing, money or other favors).   And most significantly, the homeless youth were more likely to get tested for HIV and STIs if they saw a discussion about it from other members of their online community.

So in essence these social networks – just like street networks — are creating “trusted” spaces.  Part of my clinic discusses how Homeless Services staff can “listen” and when how to engage in these online conversations.  We go over social media tools and what works, generally speaking, by generation.


Q: Who opened your eyes to the plight of homelessness?

I’ve got a friend, Mark Horvath, whose name in the conversation of homelessness everyone should know.  Mark is a social media super-star, and was once homeless himself.  Between touring the country to interview and connect with the homeless, Mark also works as a case manager at a homeless shelter.


Q: What makes Mark a social media superstar?

Not too long ago, he launched which teaches the homeless how to use social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.  He told me, “If we can just give a face to homelessness, they won’t be so invisible.”  And so by blogging and tweeting, and through video capture, Mark has helped the homeless share their experiences with the world, and open our eyes to the problem.

Q: And…

Sorry, but also, according to Mark, 100% of the sheltered homeless he meets are online and on Facebook.  “Online is still a human experience,” he says, “ it’s just online.”

Q: What was the feedback from the first clinic you ran?

Honestly, it was mixed.  Gen Y – which we all call the Millennials – are absolutely onboard with leveraging social technologies in their outreach.  But they’re still pretty fresh in their jobs, and not necessarily making the decisions for their agencies.

Most of the Boomer and GenX-er population are holding the reins of these organizations — and if they don’t value social media, I.E. they’ve never had a Facebook account and don’t Tweet — then nope… this isn’t going to necessarily translate.

Q: And in those cases?

The best I can do is point to the United Nations declaration that internet access is a basic human right.

From where I sit, that’s as big as saying social technology is the next defining step in the evolution of mankind.  And it really is changing how we all think and interact.


Q: Give me three take-aways from your clinic?

#1 Online can not replace real-world interactions.  If you’re serving youth (homeless or otherwise), you need to engage in both spaces, online and real-world.

#2 Social media engages a very wide audience.  Decide which conversations you want to be a part of, and which they don’t.

Q: Explain that point

One organization at my last clinic was newly attempting to help LGBT youth, but was weary of broadcasting this fact because of the conservative and religious leanings of that org’s donor-base.

See, Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Transgender youth make up a disproportionate number of homeless youth.  While 3% of heterosexual teens experience homelessness, as much as 1 in 4 gay teens and 15% of bi teens are homeless.  Because social media broadcasts like a TV station, organizations have to draw the line with social media policies as to which conversations they are comfortable joining, and which they are not.

Donors and clients are both out there.  Both can get “turned off” from what’s said.

 Q: And your last point?

#3 Experiment, adjust and stay agile.  It is unnerving that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution to social media engagement.  Take a long hard look at what your peers (or the competition) is doing.  Share with them, validate them and they will return the favor.  Ask your clients – especially GenZ — what they like and what they don’t.  They’ll tell you.  Don’t worry about making mistakes.  Everyone knows there’s a human behind the machine.

Lee, thank you.