We pass youth and young adults on the street. They may nod or smile. They may be dressed in their best outfit, and we silently wish them good luck for the job interview we imagine they’re walking to. We imagine their hope at the end of the day as they lay down in bed. But we don’t see their smile hiding the hunger pangs. We don’t see how worn their best outfit is as they pray for the job they need. We don’t see where they sleep at night, which is never in their own home, and sometimes, not even in a bed.
They are youth and young adults facing housing instability and homelessness. They are vulnerable, marginalized, and they live in our community.
Pathfinders, a United Way funded organization, has a deep commitment to addressing the unmet needs that currently exist for hundreds of young people as it relates to housing and housing rights. Their mission is to empower youth and change lives, and they’re able to do that with a variety of programs; programs that youth and young adults (25 years old and younger, and their families), often utilize more than one of. These young people have often experienced trauma, most often because of their race, sexual orientation, or income.
“They are some of the most invisible young people in our community,” said Tim Baack, President & CEO of Pathfinders.
For the organization, it doesn’t matter how a young person finds themselves at Pathfinders. It only matters that they receive access to the help they need.
“Not only do young people choose to access service here,” said DeShanda Clark, Senior Vice President of Programs & Services of Pathfinders. “They choose to build strong bonds with staff members, from the board to the CEO to the volunteers coming from the community. They also feel safe – safe enough to even join our staff.”
The organization grew by listening to the needs of those who came through their doors, and realized that while their program of sheltering 11–17 year olds is the root of the organization, individuals still needed support after they aged out. Pathfinders expanded their programs to include, among others, the Drop-In Center, which acts as a “day shelter” while young adults continue their path to a stable life.
“It’s not our role to tell [young people] what path they should be on,” Tim explained. “But rather to help them explore, try different paths, and find the one that works for them. They set their own goals; they do the heavy-lifting, and we’re there to do the resourcing and supporting of their work as they journey along that path. Our job is not to lead or be in front of them. It’s really to walk alongside them on the path that they chose for the future of their success.”
Pathfinders measures their success in the individuals they’ve helped: Milwaukee Continuum of Care data supports that two-thirds of young people who have left Pathfinders have not returned to shelter, breaking generational cycles of housing instability that they’ve known most of their lives. On a broader scale, success at Pathfinders is driven by achieving the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of young people on their path to stability.
The volunteers and staff at Pathfinders know that the solution to housing instability and homelessness takes the collective will of the community. Pathfinders, through United Way’s Safe & Stable Homes initiative, has become a voice for our community’s invisible youth and young adults.
“When I get asked about how United Way supports Pathfinders and the work that we do, that is such an easy question for me to answer,” Tim said. “United Way support makes our work possible.”
When you give to United Way, you're not just making a donation. You're changing a life. Organizations like Pathfinders remind us that to live better, we must Live United.