Rites of Passage: Youth Employment for Mental Wellness

By Rashni Stanford, with support from Jessica Keel, Youth Organizer, Youth HEALers Stand Up! | February 11, 2019

Youth HEALers Stand Up! is a collective of young people ages 24 and under who have lived experience of homelessness, and who train youth in the community to fight for better housing conditions, while promoting youth inclusion in decision-making processes related to equity issues. This past January marks the HEALers’ first year anniversary. After a year of work, Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow and youth organizer Rashni Stanford discusses the value of meaningful work experiences as a potential mental health intervention for young people struggling with unstable housing. Read more to find out how you can help local youth develop professionally.

Workforce development and mental wellness have been high on the HEALers’ list of priorities during its first year, in large part because their peers in the community advocated for greater access to both during last year’s visioning sessions.

Local young people’s concerns dovetail with the literature on youth homelessness.

According to the Voices of Youth Count Study Philadelphia Technical Report (Chapin Hall, 2017), young people dealing with housing instability are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues, as well as increased disconnection from both work and school, than their peers. Other studies have found that young people experiencing homelessness are also at greater risk of overdose and suicidality than their peers, further underlying the importance of developing and implementing innovative mental health solutions for young people (Kidd & Shahar, 2008).

In 2019, the HEALers are continuing to work on these issues as they relate to youth homelessness, by working to develop career pathways for young people in the social services, compensating young people for their input on community initiatives, developing a support system for young activists and organizers, and being thought partners to community stakeholders so that decision-makers can support the unique development and strengths of young people in Philly who have experienced homelessness.

Many adults remember their first major employment experiences as teenagers and young adults—the ones that sparked a passion or allowed them entry into a career they could build a life around. For young people growing up without the traditional supports of family or stable housing, or who grow up in systems like foster care or the juvenile legal system, those first experiences are difficult to access.

And for homeless youth in particular, access to employment may prove to be a particularly important element in maintaining mental wellness as well as stability.

Against the backdrop of Philadelphia’s alarming rate of disengagement from school and work among youth of color (Fulmore-Townsend, 2018), youth employment is obviously an important factor in supporting the future generation of residents in this city.

However, I strongly believe that meaningful employment is also an important rite of passage and source of mental wellness for young people dealing with homelessness, as well as a critical element in their transition into a stable adulthood.

Providing access to quality employment may be an overlooked mental health intervention for this particular group.

Young people who are employed have better self-esteem than their peers (Mortimer, Vuolo, & Staff, 2016). However, young people facing homelessness are more likely to be unemployed both because of their age and their housing situation. Unemployment lowers self-esteem significantly for all young people (Mortimer & Vuolo, et al., 2016).

Self-esteem is particularly important for young people with unstable housing, because high self-esteem has been shown to buffer feelings of suicidality and loneliness and to increase youth’s resilience to substance use (Kidd & Shahar, 2016), contributing to their overall sense of mental health.

While researchers have spent a lot time exploring the pathologies of youth who have experienced adversity like homelessness, the literature is scarce on the strengths and unique skills of this group (Bender & Thompson, et al., 2007).

Within the HEALers, we have discussed how young people experiencing homelessness and other similar situations may possess traits that their more supported peers do not have, including resourcefulness, critical thinking, and persistence. Also, because these youth have no one to fall back on, they may take meaningful work more seriously, as it may be their only option to escape homelessness.

From our perspective, young workers are being overlooked by the workforce, when they possess some of the very skills today’s emerging economy requires.

Shifting the paradigm of employment to be inclusive of people with atypical resumes can allow companies and organizations to benefit from the wealth of wisdom and experiences that those without traditional supports have attained in their lives (Kelly, 2016).

We believe that the entire community can support young people in discovering and attaining a meaningful career or craft.

What can you do?

  • Advocate for and develop programming that will pay young people to enter into a legitimate career. For example, hire young people as afterschool care staff, offer workshops on possible career pathways in the future, and support staff in their educational goals by providing flexible work scheduling.
  • Create accessible pathways for young people to gain real certifications, qualifications, and trainings that make them eligible for professional employment. Examples may include CPR and First Aid training, ServSafe training, Associate’s Degrees, and Certified Peer Specialist trainings.
  • Develop creative ways to pay young people for both long-term employment and short-term projects. Smaller, paid experiences can help young people build their resumes with meaningful experiences while they look for longer term, more stable careers.
  • Mentor an interested young person in your profession. Let young people shadow you and intern for you. Offer them connections and conversations with respected and trusted colleagues, and write glowing recommendations for them. Share your professional network with interested young people.
  • Make employment requirements as flexible and equitable as possible. Many administrative and digital skills have been obtained by young people prior to completing their Bachelor’s degrees, and often before entering post-secondary education. Other skills can easily be taught on the job.
  • Honor non-traditional achievements and skills. Young people without traditional supports also hold wisdom and skills that their more supported peers may not have as much experience in developing, including self-reliance, resourcefulness, and independent critical thinking. Don’t judge a youth’s skillset and capabilities without getting to know them!
  • Consume media and culture produced by youth. In 2019, teenagers are major producers of online content, honing skills in cultural engagement and political commentary through the creation of memes, songs, articles, Instagram accounts, and viral videos. While this content creation may seem like leisure activity, youth use online platforms to analyze major issues with their peers, away from the control of mainstream media, parents, and schools. Like any other cultural competency, expose yourself to today’s youth culture to improve communication with the emerging workforce.

To work with young leaders within Youth HEALers Stand Up! and to develop work opportunities for local young people, email youthhealersstandup @ gmail dot com.

Stay up to date with Youth HEALers Stand Up! and their work to develop new resources for youth facing housing insecurity by signing up for People’s Emergency Center’s PEC Perspective newsletter here.


Bender, K., Thompson, S. J., McManus, H., Lantry, J., & Flynn, P. M. (2007). Capacity for Survival: Exploring Strengths of Homeless Street Youth. Child & youth care forum, 36(1), 25-42.

Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. (2017). Youth homelessness in Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania: Findings from the youth count, brief youth survey, and provider survey. Technical report from the Voices of Youth Count Initiative. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

Fulmore-Townsend, CJ. (2018). Philadelphia Youth Network is fighting poverty by connecting young people to jobs. Generocity. https://generocity.org/philly/2018/01/30/philadelphia-youth-network-chekemma-fulmore-townsend/

Kelly, K. (2016). Silver Spoons Vs. Scrappers: Selecting Your Next Best Hire. Launch Pad. https://www.launchpadrecruits.com/insight-articles/selecting-your-next-best-hire

Kidd, Sean & Shahar, Golan. (2008). Resilience in Homeless Youth: The Key Role of Self‐Esteem. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 78. 163 – 172.

Lorenz, T. (2018). Teens are debating the news on Instagram.  The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/07/the-instagram-forums-where-teens-go-to-debate-big-issues/566153/

Mortimer, J., Vuolo, M., Staff, J. (2016) How Unemployment Affects Twentysomethings’ Self-Worth. Harvard Business Review.  https://hbr.org/2016/12/how-unemployment-affects-twentysomethings-self-worth

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