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Transforming the Future of Homeless and At-Risk Youth

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Laura van der VeerSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Laura van der Veer

On a given night in 2015, 640 youth experienced homelessness in Portland, Oregon. Of those, at least 136 were sleeping on the streets, unaccompanied by parents or guardians. New Avenues for Youth exists to eradicate youth homelessness in Portland with a belief that all young people should have food, shelter, and opportunities for building independent, productive adult lives.

In 1997, the growing needs of Portland’s homeless and at-risk youth population lead a group of local business and community leaders to found New Avenues for Youth. Since its founding, the organization has served more than 20,000 individuals with its mission to work in partnership with the community to prevent youth homelessness and provide homeless and at-risk young people with the resources and skills need to lead healthy, productive lives.

New Avenues LogoHomeless youth need more than emergency shelter or free meals to help them exit street life. A stable, productive future is unattainable without access to education, career opportunities, or long-term affordable housing. At New Avenues for Youth, more than 1,300 young people seek basic relief and safety services each year. Once those basic needs are met, New Avenues helps these young people find meaningful, life-altering opportunities that build confidence and self-sufficiency.

It Starts with Basic Needs & Safety

Most youth first engage with New Avenues through the Drop-In Day Services Center, which provides three meals per day, access to showers, hygiene products, clothing, and laundry. Using this initial interaction as an opportunity to build relationships with youth, New Avenues staff then work with each individual to initiate additional services that may include housing, education, and career development.

These additional, wrap-around services often start with the Alternative School for Homeless Youth, which works with young people who have become disengaged with the education system and gets them back on track to earn their GED. The school is located in the same facility as the Drop-In Day Services Center, allowing a seamless transition from basic needs and safety services to transformative educational opportunities. In 2015, New Avenues was proud to send 29 new students off to college.

Part of eradicating youth homelessness is ensuring that youth at-risk of homelessness never end up sleeping on the streets. PDX-Connect specifically targets youth aging out of the foster care system so they are able to transition into independent, stable housing. The Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC) targets the 40% of at-risk and homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ. New Avenues’ Transitional Housing Program helps youth transition into their own apartment for independent living.

Using Social Enterprise to Launch Careers

New Avenues’ model for success lies within its innovative job-training program. Not only do foster, at-risk, and homeless youth learn basic job skills like resume writing and interview preparation, but they actually earn wages while employed in real-world work environments. New Avenues manages a portfolio of social enterprises that include two Ben & Jerry’s PartnerShop franchises, New Avenues INK screenprinting, New Avenues thru Soup food cart, and soon the youth-led graphic design apparel enterprise, Different Pidgeon. The job placements at-risk youth find through these social enterprises are geared toward their interests so they stay engaged throughout the duration of their employment.

New Avenues’ social enterprises exclusively hire at-risk youth, eliminating competition that might leave a young person without experience unemployed. These employment opportunities meet youth where they are in their career development, and allow them the time and space to learn on the job. New Avenues offers youth either short-term employment (1-3 months) or long-term employment (9-12 months), depending on the position, individual, and available opportunities.

Youth employed through a New Avenues enterprise build confidence as they learn skills like customer service, cash handling, managing coworker conflict, and even simply how to show up to work on time. Youth are given the chance for upward mobility and can be promoted to the assistant manager level. These leadership positions provide deeper career development and allow opportunities for peer training and mentoring. In the words of New Avenues youth client Darin, “Working in the PartnerShop has taught me to be a leader… New Avenues really cares about me and wants me to succeed.”

Program sustainability is essential at New Avenues. This social enterprise program is uniquely situated to be self-sustaining as profits from operations are used to support the organization’s job-training program.

Data-Driven Goals

Constant evaluation is key at New Avenues for Youth. The organization strives to clearly articulate results through measurable outcomes. The decision to incorporate social enterprises into the job-training program at New Avenues was no accident – this strategic investment has shown to positively impact the employment future careers of the over 250 youth who participate each year. New Avenues was recently selected by the venture philanthropy organization, Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), for a nation-wide social enterprise expansion project. This multi-year grant recognizes the success of New Avenues’ social enterprises and will allow the organization to add new employment opportunities for at-risk youth in the coming year.

A deeply innovative organization, New Avenues looks for ways to evolve and improve its approach to ending youth homelessness. By 2020, the organization aims to double the number of youth they serve each year. While many see poverty existing in a cyclical fashion, New Avenues thinks they can change the trajectory of the next generation.


Laura van der Veer is a Development Associate for De Paul Treatment Centers. She graduated in May 2015 with a Master’s in Public Affairs from the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. After two years of AmeriCorps service and graduate studies concentrating on nonprofit management, Laura is dedicated to a career with nonprofits that give back to the community.

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