The Searchers

When the winter freeze hits Boston and the wind-chill feels like knives on your skin, for a forgotten, unseen tribe, the distance between life and death can be a short walk to a van.

Those nights, when Boston’s homeless teen population seeks shelter in the dark corners of the city, are when the work of the searchers becomes critical.

Will Schaffer searches. He is an Outreach Worker for Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a United Way partner agency that serves homeless young people. And the numbers are staggering: 3,000 kids served a year, 2,000 of which contacted on the street or in a shelter, the age range 14 to 24–and they’re getting younger.

“Most of these kids are coming from discord and disharmony in the home, and there is trauma underlying their situation,” Will says. “A lot of our job is to get them to acknowledge that they’re living life in the present and address the underlying anxiety of the future in a way that provides comfort and hope.”

For Outreach Workers like Will, the process of introducing hope is a slow one. For a kid seeking solace in the streets, trust in adults is a vanquished resource. The first step, always, is a simple introduction, an attempt to defuse skepticism and brick by brick lay a foundation of good intentions. That means seeking them out where they congregate–train stations, parks, squares–and dressing the part: a Bridge Over Troubled Waters sweatshirt, info cards at the ready and nothing that could be mistaken for a police badge.

“I’ll go up to them and just say ‘Hey guys, what’s up? I’m an outreach worker,'” Will says. “After that I tell them about the services we have available and engage in nonchalant conversation. It’s a lot of seed-planting.”

That initial seed is simple: these people want to help and they have a van. For these kids, the Bridge van is a mobile beacon in the dreary night. There, Bridge workers offer fresh clothes, sandwiches, hot chocolate, warm seats, and even confidential medical advice courtesy of Health Care for the Homeless. There are strict rules on the van. No drugs. No weapons. No swearing. No phone use. It is a safe space. It is, as Will says, “a place to address their immediate survival needs.” It’s also a first step, designed to foster that elusive trust and put these kids on the path to longer-term supports.

“We try to teach the little things,” says Elisabeth Jackson, Bridge’s Executive Director. “We tell the kids, ‘You can’t go into Dunkin’ Donuts and start dropping the F-bombs. They’ll call the police on you. What other ways can you express your anger?'” After a while it becomes second nature.”

Those first steps may seem small and insignificant, but they are crucial to reorienting the youth towards a simple concept: there is a better life. It is why Bridge is such a unique United Way partner.

“Bridge is using proven practices to reroute these young people back on track,” says Dahlia Bousaid, Senior Director of Impact for United Way. “They literally bridge United Way’s goals of educational success and family financial opportunity under one program.”

“We’re able to measure for ourselves,” Will says. “We see regular kids come to the van, and they get acclimated to the rules. They begin to see it as their own environment and in turn help uphold the rules for new kids.”

And there are always new kids. During the winter, Will estimates that they see an average of 75 youth a night. Each one brings a different story, a different set of circumstances that led to a life on the streets.

“They are coming from a life of pain and suffering,” Will says. “They’re trying to find a community to ease that.”

So they search.