Youth and COVID-19: Balancing Safety with Independence


This blog post is part of an ongoing series that aim to assist youth service providers in their COVID-19 response efforts. For more information and resources, please visit TNOYS’ blog, or visit the COVID-19 resource page.

As the number of identified cases of COVID-19 climb in the United States and in Texas, youth service providers, particularly providers running emergency shelters and residential treatment centers (RTCs), have raised concerns about balancing the safety of youth residents and staff with supporting the desire of youth in their care for independence. Many young people do not realize that, if exposed to COVID-19, they are as likely as older people to become infected and contagious. In fact, a CDC report from March 16 indicates that 20% of 508 COVID-19 patients hospitalized were between the ages of 20 and 44. While many young people may be asymptomatic, not show symptoms, or not require hospitalization, the likelihood that they may become a carrier of the disease is a risk for others and the community as a whole.

Medical experts and preliminary data indicate the most effective way to “flatten the curve” or reduce the spread of COVID-19 is to not congregate in large groups of people and to stay in place, which in this case is at the shelter or RTC. Youth service providers struggle to maintain a balance in keeping the facility safe while also providing opportunities for young people living there to become self-sufficient and independent. During public health crises, safety and security becomes the greater priority. Because COVID-19 seems to be invisible and intangible, it is challenging to explain to young people just how dangerous it can be.

Texas Network of Youth Services continues to work to support our membership of community and residential providers during COVID-19. Last week, TNOYS hosted a series of virtual meetings to facilitate information-sharing among providers, with specific meetings for emergency shelters, youth homeless providers, transitional service providers, and Services to At Risk Youth (STAR) providers. One of the recurring concerns from providers on these calls was how to talk to youth living in their facilities about the seriousness of COVID-19. Youth have chafed at restrictions on their mobility and some don’t seem to understand why gathering with friends could endanger themselves or others in the shelter when they return. Another concern expressed was about youth in shelters or RTCs who are still working in “essential” positions at restaurants, grocery stores, or other jobs where they may encounter a lot of people. Providers had questions about whether to allow these youth to continue to report to work, and how to set up safeguards to reduce the possibility of spreading the virus if/when youth are exposed.

What Can You Do to Prevent Youth from Leaving the Shelter or RTC?

TNOYS has several young adults with lived experience on its staff who bring an important perspective and understanding of what young people living in shelters and RTCs are dealing with during this crisis.

Lyric Wardlow, TNOYS Program Specialist, is a strong advocate for youth voice and has spent a number of years working to increase the integration of youth voice within all systems. Recently, she experienced firsthand the impact of COVID-19 while traveling in Italy and her harrowing return to the United States. Lyric provides some suggestions on how to engage youth in healthy practices that reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19 and mitigate the spread of the virus:

  • Encourage youth to shift their thinking from being a victim of COVID-19 to how they can model for others practices to keep everyone safe. Try to redirect their thinking about how restricted movement and their inability to hang out with friends “sucks” and isn’t fair to more about how making some sacrifices might keep someone they know or care about from getting sick, and also may make the time that the restrictions are in place shorter if everyone tries to follow the guidelines.
  • Avoid being judgemental about youth’s decisions. Lean into using “I” statements like “I am concerned about you and your health,” when talking to a youth about not leaving the shelter or center.
  • Ensure youth living in the shelter or RTC feel they are a part of the decision-making process. Consider creating a mutual agreement with youth that lays out their options and parameters, including in-person contact with people outside the shelter, as well as what you as a provider can do to support the youth.
  • Provide alternative activities that youth can do in the facilities, such as online certification courses or other professional development tools (certifications for graphic design, food handling, etc.)
  • Organize activities that foster fun and healthy competition, such as a room decorating contest or other activities that encourage connection but can be done at a social distance.
  • Encourage connecting with their friends via FaceTime or other virtual applications. Consider other ways youth can use virtual meetings or online services to stay connected while maintaining the online security needed for your organization.
  • Provide opportunities to go outside, to walk, or to do other activities that don’t directly involve getting together with others in a group. This can reduce anxiety and provide an opportunity for youth to reestablish a sense of normalcy.

Prince Hayward, TNOYS Policy Specialist has lived experience with living in shelters and being in care. He initially didn’t think COVID-19 was very serious and chose not to curtail his activities or follow the early guidance. He quickly realized, however, that his viewpoint might be short-sighted. His mom, who works at a county correctional facility that is confined by design and function, expressed concerns about exposure and her heightened risk for contracting COVID-19. As Prince explained,

“I went from thinking this is a fake virus to now believing that it is an epidemic that is the most serious spread of germs worldwide since I’ve been alive! Taking this situation serious is and can be hard but it is a must that we all follow the restrictions to help stop the spread over time. My auntie who is in England has been affected due to being a first responder, and now she is going through treatment to get better. My mother is also on the frontline against the virus in Harris County jail as she treats any and everyone who shows and claims that may have symptoms.”

Prince also speculated on what youth in care might be thinking and experiencing right now:

“I think youth in care are in a state of not only shock but confusion and mostly anxiety. The anxiety from the older youth in care stems from not only not knowing what the real world is all about but now dealing with the virus. It just adds more pressure and anxiety to the unknown. Youth in care already have trouble with trust, and the fact that nobody knows what’s next, they don’t know who to turn to for substantial and trustworthy information.”

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Training and Technical Assistance Center (RHYTTAC) has a resource page with federal guidance and resources on COVID-19. RHYTTAC encourages engaging young people in ways that include youth voice. Their website states, “In a crisis situation, there is the opportunity to help youth gain insight, perspective, and a sense of community, while also helping youth learn to balance self-care and responsibility for others. Youth tend to listen to and follow one another’s direction in thinking and practice, so including the youth voice can be essential. Youth are more than resilient; they are problem solvers, resourceful, communicators, leaders among their peers, and experts in what they most need. Including youth in the discussion demonstrates our willingness to create opportunities and our belief that youth can be successful partners.”

RHYTTAC also provided “10 potential outcomes when youth are part of the conversation and solution”:

  • Youth will be well-informed and equipped with reliable information.
  • Support systems increase for and among youth.
  • Promotes optimal development.
  • Youth’s self-esteem increases.
  • Youth strike a balance in sharing responsibility for, and accountability to, themselves and others.
  • Reinforces the importance of universal safety precautions.   
  • Youth feel valued and believe that their voice and actions matter.
  • Youth’s sense of hopelessness and powerlessness decreases.
  • Youth are better prepared to deal with concerns/discussions with their families and friends.
  • Youth are empowered and their development is supported.

Youth Working in “Essential” Jobs

Youth service providers running shelters and RTCs have also expressed concerns about youth in their facilities who are continuing to work in restaurants, grocery stores, and other locations where they might come in contact with a number of people who might be infected with COVID-19. 

Consider talking with the youth and asking about what safeguards the companies are putting in place for their employees. For example, HEB groceries train their staff to practice strict social distancing and have equipped them with gloves, cleaners, and barriers (such as plexiglass shields at check-out counters) if employees are interfacing with customers. HEB also announces reminders over the in-store system for employees to wash their hands at prescribed intervals. 

Most residential facilities reduce the potential for infection by requiring that exposure to elements from outside the facility are limited. This includes allowing a youth to leave and return to the facility for work or any other purpose.

  • If you do allow youth to continue working, how do you weigh their employment with ensuring the safety of other residents? Consider setting up a protocol for youth who are working in positions that require them to be around the public with a series of steps they follow whenever they return to the shelter or RTC:
    • Do you have a private place, near the entrance to your facility, where youth can change clothes when they return from work?
    • Do you have a way for youth to launder their own clothing?
    • Can youth immediately access a shower upon their return from work?
  • If you do not allow youth to continue working, how do you help them adjust to or accept that decision?
    • Provide clear, precise reasons for this decision, such as not having a private space for them to change clothes and clean up before interacting with staff and other residents, or that your facility lacks the capacity for quarantine or isolation if they begin to show symptoms.
    • Explain that safety concerns outweigh the need for them to work, particularly in larger residential settings.
    • Assist them to find out if they qualify for unemployment, and if so, support them in navigating the application process.
    • Consider working together to find other jobs, ideally remote jobs that they could do online.
    • Explore other alternatives to compensate youth, are there grant programs that might help them?

Further Reading and Resources:

Covenant House Texas created guidance and published COVID-19 Update: Protecting Our Youth on their website. This guidance provides information on actions Covenant House Texas has taken to keep the youth and staff safe.

Covenant House International posted a COVID-19 Update page which provided suggestions for the following questions: “What are the specific challenges and the unique risks of COVID-19 to young people facing homelessness?”, “What measures are being taken”, and “What can you do?”  

University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital published a guide “Talking to Children and Teens about COVID-19” that provides suggestions and guidance on talking to young people about COVID-19. 

The Atlantic published an article by a 28 year old working in a hospital emergency department in New York City: “I’m Treating Too Many Young People for the Coronavirus.”  In that article, the author cites a college poll where only 50% of the respondents expressed concern about contracting COVID-19. The Atlantic has lowered its paywall for any stories about COVID-19. 

New York Times published an article on March 11, “5 Ways to Help Teens Manage Anxiety About Coronavirus.” While it is geared more toward parents, the suggestions made can apply to interactions your staff and residents have as well. 

National Network for Youth (NN4Y) has a resource page, COVID-19 Resources for Youth Homelessness Providers that has information from youth service providers, state partners (including TNOYS!), national partners and federal agencies. NN4Y is also offering virtual office hours on Wednesdays through April 29 from 11am CST.

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