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Family Finding Program Connects Homeless Arizona Youth With Relatives

By Sarah Ventre
Published: Tuesday, August 11, 2015 - 11:41am
Updated: Tuesday, August 11, 2015 - 11:48am
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(Photo courtesy of Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development)
Mikah and Mckale Bennett are participating in the Family Finding program.

Homeless youth often lack connections with family members, which is why staff at the Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development in Phoenix — a Valley nonprofit that works with homeless young people — recently underwent training in a program called Family Finding. Its goal is to help some of these young people re-connect with family members and supportive adults from their past.

Family Finding was developed by Kevin Campbell, founder of the Center for Family Finding and Youth Connectedness in Berkeley, California. Campbell, who has been working with youth for decades, said he developed this program because he didn’t feel like his efforts were paying off.

"One of the experiences I had years ago was being a foster parent for older teenagers and my personal experience, both as a foster parent and also as a professional, was working incredibly hard for young people that I learned to deeply care about and then learning later that their adult lives were not what I had hoped for," said Campbell.

In the Family Finding process, young people who have been through significant trauma identify adults from their past who provided some kind of positive influence. In some cases, this includes family members they didn’t know they had.

Kevin Campbell came to Tumbleweed to train their staff in the program. Its the first he has done with homeless youth. He said one of the biggest problems for young people in tough situations who revolve through state agencies like foster care, and nonprofits like Tumbleweed, is that this support doesn’t last forever.

"Let me be more explicit," said Campbell, "I'm growing the network of people who aren’t paid to care about them. As valuable as all the services are that are provided by these agencies, the one thing we know about them is they are all temporary."

Mikah and Mckale Bennett have experience with many of these agencies. The twin brother and sister were in foster care until they were adopted at age 4. Then, when they were 6, their adopted mother died.

They moved from Ohio to Arizona with their oldest adopted sister, but they both left that home after high school.

At 18, Mckale was incarcerated. Now, he’s homeless and Mikah is living in transitional housing.

Until recently, neither had much contact with family.

"Before I went to jail, I maybe talked to my mom about once. But any of the other family did not have contact with them before jail or while I was in jail," Mckale said.

Now, the 20-year-old twins make up two thirds of group at Tumbleweed called "Omega Misfits." It’s a tiny support group in Phoenix for young people who are participating in the Family Finding program.

Mikah said that they have been able to get in some contact with family, though it is clear that it has been a complicated process with lots of mixed feelings for them.

"I’m not going to lie. It was kind of awkward," said Mikah. "It felt a little weird, because you first get on the phone, you don’t know what to talk about. It’s just — it’s more silence than talking."

Mikah thinks those awkward interactions may never improve, and both siblings are prepared for the possibility that family may still let them down.

Campbell acknowledges that possibility.

"Part of human life and human relationship includes disappointing experiences with people," Campbell said. "We’re not going to be able to protect young people from that in the future in their lives in the same way that each of us are not assured that won’t happen."

Campbell also said that one way to avoid that kind of disappointment is to have many of people to reach out to, so that if one lets you down, someone else can pick you up.

The Bennett twins have begun to build some relationships. Their cousin Troy flew into town for a family reunion where they got to hear stories from when they were younger. They’ve also been in touch with their grandmother and have had offers of support from extended family.

Mikah said that around Christmastime, she was having some trouble and her uncle called her.

"He was like, 'You know, if anything further happens let me know and I can get you a ticket to come out here and you can stay out here for a couple months.' So they’re willing to help, and if they can’t come out here then they’ll try everything that they can to get us out there," she said.

Mikah also said that kind of contact means a great deal.

"So that way we have family members to be around and we’ll have some type of support," she said. "Even if it’s not permanently, at least for a couple of months."

In the meantime, the Omega Misfits support group continues to meet, and Tumbleweed has received a grant that would allow them to grow the Family Finding program in October.

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