Advocate for Homeless Youth Speaks from Experience
Last year, Portlander Jessica Coshatt was asked to speak at the National Health Care for the Homeless Conference in New Orleans.
“So I agreed to do it,” said the 28-year-old peer wellness specialist for homeless youth. “Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, what did I just do?’ “
Coshatt, who had been a homeless youth herself in her early 20s, had agreed to make the first speech of her life to a crowd of about 950 healthcare professionals.
“It was terrifying, so I had to actually push myself through the fear,” she remembers, a smile forming at the thought.
“It was great. I knocked their socks off,” she said, grinning broadly. “I was approached by people throughout the conference and they would say, “Dude, if you hadn’t told us that that was your first public speaking gig, we never would have known. This cannot be the last time.’ “
Coshatt’s delivery crackles with intelligence, passion and caring. Those who know her praise her extraordinary ability to listen carefully to the needs of street youth, to give them hope, and to see solutions in tangles of healthcare red tape.
“She’s impressive,” said Brett Hamilton, coordinator of FamilyCare’s Community Advisory Council, who brought Coshatt to speak at a meeting of the Oregon Medicaid Advisory Council.
“I was seeking a voice to represent transition-age youth,” he said. That includes 15- to 25-year-olds who struggle to get services, including young people emerging from foster care.
“When I met her, I realized this was a great opportunity for us both.” Coordinated Care Organizations such as FamilyCare are playing an expanding role in the post-ACA evolution of health services for the poor in Oregon.
“She’s been through a lot and she offers that whole ‘lived experience’ piece,” Hamilton added. “She brings a perspective that keeps us grounded, that helps us ask youth what they need to help them overcome barriers.”
“It’s a legal requirement that CCOs have these consumer advisory councils, so they wanted to know how it is we reach out to the homeless community and how we integrate their input,” said Coshatt.
“I’m kind of a bridge between the consumer and the corporation, so I sit on that council,” she added.
“I also had a contract through Oregon Health Authority a couple of months ago to put together a CAC 101, sort of an onboarding orientation for those servicing on consumer advisory councils. Things like ‘what do all these acronyms mean,’ or ‘this is why we’re here and what we do.’
“I found out the presentation is going to be used throughout the state of Oregon for all the CCOs – which is so exciting, oh my god!”
It’s been a long upward climb for Coshatt, who became homeless in 2007 as a result of untreated bipolar disorder, social anxiety, alcoholism and other hurdles.
“I understand what it’s like growing up hard,” she says. “I strongly relate to the homeless youth I work with.”
For Coshatt, Portland’s network of youth service organizations extended a hand when she most needed it. She’s grateful to be able to return the favor, to give back to the community she came from.
“The Homeless Youth Continuum was able to get me housing and get me stable,” she says.
“Portland is amazingly lucky to have the four major agencies in the Homeless Youth Continuum: Outside In, New Avenues for Youth, Janus Youth Programs and the Native American Youth and Family Center.”
“Our services are integrating so the people in the shelter can talk to the drops-ins at lunch, can talk to the case managers, can talk to the doctors at the Outside In Clinic,” said Coshatt, who currently has a paying job as a Peer Wellness Specialist at New Avenues for Youth and a volunteer position at Yellow Brick Road.
“Yellow Brick Road is often the first point of contact for street-dependent youth,” she says. “We find kids on the streets and
offer them Q-tips, condoms, dental floss, things that can get them through the rest of the day. From there, you get engagement. You can let them know there are resources available.”
Outreach to homeless youth can be difficult, since “grown-ups” aren’t generally viewed as trustworthy.
“In my job as a peer mentor, my first responsibility is to offer hope,” says Coshatt. “And respect. You can’t build relationships if you’re not respecting people, and you’re not really listening to them.
“For a lot of these kids, coming to the Homeless Youth Continuum is the first time an adult has listened to them in their lives. That starts to build a platform for positive relationships with caring adults, personal development and skills-building.
There’s one word that’s especially prickly in such conversations.
“Don’t ‘should’ on someone,” she says.
“People respond more positively to what they hear come out of their own mouths,“ she added. “If you can guide the conversation in a way that gets people thinking about their own internal motivation and how they can work toward a goal, it’s 100 million times far effective than offering advice.”
In the last two years, Coshatt has settled into an apartment, started eating better (“I found out I like to cook!”) and made her place a home.
She also received a scholarship from Portland-based Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare and received her Peer Wellness I and II certificates at Portland State University.
For Coshatt, her motivation to leave homelessness wasn’t as much a warm bed or security, but a desire to fly.
“I originally wanted to get back inside for trapeze and acrobatics training,” she said. “It scared the ever living stuffing out of me,” but it’s a thrill ride that’s fun and healthy.
“Jessica’s strength has been there all along,” said FamilyCare’s Hamilton. “She takes on challenges, pushes through doors and has become empowered.”
Kendra Hogue is a Portland-based freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
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