All-One Activist: Joean Villarin of Streetwork Project

Dr. Bronner’s “All-One Activist” series profiles influential activists who are advancing the core causes that Dr. Bronner’s supports through its philanthropy and advocacy work including animal advocacy, regenerative agriculture, drug policy reform, and community betterment.

Streetwork Project has been supporting homeless and street-involved youth in the boroughs of New York City since the early 1980s, and Dr. Bronner’s is incredibly proud to have been supporting their essential work since 2015. In addition to operating drop-in centers and an overnight shelter in a judgment-free environment, Streetwork Project provides outreach to young people under 25 who may have experienced family abuse, violence, rejection, and instability that led to their homelessness.

You can donate here, to support Streetwork Project’s ongoing operations. For Giving Tuesday, Dr. Bronner’s is matching all donations up to $5,000.

We spoke with Joean Villarin, longtime employee and new(ish) Director of Streetwork’s Uptown Drop-In Center, to learn more about the crucial work they’re doing.

What is Streetwork’s mission, and what programs further it? 

Streetwork Project aims to center itself around the concept that every person we serve is deserving of respect and compassion; we have always approached our work with the goal of ensuring that youth feel cared for, empowered, and informed about options and opportunities that we are able to introduce them to as they navigate surviving poverty and homelessness in NYC.

How did Streetwork first get started as an organization? 

Streetwork Project began in 1984 as a small outreach program run by Victims Services Agency (VSA), which later became Safe Horizon. That era was at the start of the HIV/AIDS and crack epidemics, and there were young people who were at risk in all sorts of ways—for example, many families were devasted by the effects of systemic and oppression in their communities. In midtown, the hub of NYC’s sex trade, a lot of youths were participating in survival sex to have access to money or a place to stay, and there were no resources in the city with a primary focus on unaccompanied homeless youth at that time. Back then, before Times Square became the touristy place it has more recently become in the last two decades, the streets were outwardly gritty and raw, and young people were doing the best they could to survive.

Folklore has it that Streetwork Project began with two outreach workers, a phone,  and a desk in the Traveler’s Aid office (Traveler’s Aid was a program designed to connect people with safe travel to connect back home from the city, along with limited supportive services). Over time, the program was able to grow, first with a small storefront on 10th Avenue providing sack lunches and outreach services, and later with a larger drop-in space on Eighth Avenue that had showers(!), counseling and case management, and medical and legal services for youth who needed food, respite, and someone to really talk to who required nothing of them in return.

How did you come to work for Streetwork? Tell us about your journey to the position you hold now.  

In the ‘90s, on the heels of the Nancy Reagan era, “Just Say No” and “D.A.R.E” were still popular abstinence-based student curricula presented in schools across the nation. I was working with high school students in Crown Heights and Flatbush, Brooklyn at a risk reduction program that offered discussion groups and counseling but had a lot of limitations in what we could discuss, including real talk about sex, drugs, or issues at home. I was frustrated with having to promote campaigns that didn’t serve all the youth we were encountering and felt that my reach was limited. I left the Board of Education for a year and worked at a fancy print publication company in Times Square; in that time, I became aware of the large number of young folks hanging out in the area, on the streets. I realized I missed working with youth and felt drawn to returning to social services work. I began looking for programs whose philosophical approach in working with youth were aligned with my own. Almost immediately, I knew that Streetwork Project was where I wanted to be.

Photo courtesy of Joean Villarin

What populations does Streetwork serve?  

Streetwork Project serves unaccompanied homeless youth; among that group, who are aged anywhere between 13 and 25, we work with people of all experiences and identities: LGBTQ youth, cis- and straight-identified youth, immigrants, folks who have left the foster care system, you name it. The youth we work with are resilient. Many of our clients have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives, varying from physical, sexual, emotional, or any combination of the three. The great majority of our clients have no, or very limited, support from family, and quite a few have no family that they have contact with. Some have become homeless as a result of generational poverty and grew up in the shelter system. Others were rejected by the adults in their lives, many times because of their sexual orientation or gender identity—approximately 40% of homeless youth self-identify as LGBTQ, but we believe the number is probably much greater. Most of the youth we serve are youth of color—black and Latinx in particular.

What does your work at Streetwork involve on a day-to-day basis? 

Oh, my goodness! Streetwork Project is one of the most vibrant spaces I have ever spent time in. The start of the drop-in day is set aside for conducting new client intakes, providing focused one-on-one counseling sessions for clients who may be in need of more individualized support, and preparing the space for our general drop-in hours. We’re making sure our drop-in activities (we have a number of recreational and self-care projects in play at all times) and services are prepped and ready for client access. This includes restocking our daily services supplies (including the wonderful products Dr. Bronner’s donates to us!). Daily services include showers and access to clean clothing (we also launder folks’ clothes, which is so important). Case managers and component coordinators are often busy handling administrative tasks (social work = TONS of paperwork duties) and correspondence throughout the day, and are also providing drop-in coverage and client meetings, which can address anything from providing counseling support, advocacy, referrals, and benefits/resources applications and management.

We have several services on site to eliminate barriers for our clients in getting things they need, like medical services, health insurance, food pantry, legal consultation, and mental health care. We also provide on-site HIV testing, substance use counseling, and syringe exchange services. As a client-centered, trauma-informed, harm reduction-based youth program, our goal is to make information and services available to clients without judgment or pressure. We believe that our clients are the true experts on their lives, and our job is to meet them where they’re at and support them as they identify and meet their goals, at their pace. In the drop-in each day, we aim to create a welcoming environment where young people feel safe and accepted for who they are, and we emphasize the importance in recognizing and practicing inclusivity and non-judgment in every aspect of our work.

We run a number of groups that aim to engage all our clients—we offer support groups for LGBTQ-identified folks, men’s and women’s groups, Trans, GNC and non-binary-specific groups, social justice activism forums, support groups for HIV-positive clients, sexual health workshops, vocational training and employment coaching, parenting support, peer outreach internships, creative arts therapy, yoga and meditation, you name it. There’s something for everyone at Streetwork, and it shows in how diverse our client base is. Throughout the day, nutritious, homecooked, culturally relevant meals are offered—we’ve heard that our program has some of the best food in town!

What are some of the biggest challenges that homeless youth in NYC are presently facing, and how does Streetwork work to minimize those challenges for your clients?  

Homelessness, particularly among youth, often goes unnoticed by many, and on any given night in NYC, there are about 5,000 young folks who are unstably housed. At this time, there are less than 600 youth shelter beds in this city, most of which are only available to folks under 21. While there has been commendable effort in making this a wider discussion that the city must address, the reality is that there simply aren’t enough tangible resources for all of the youth impacted by homelessness.

Also, as most of the young people we see are unable to survive without being as resourceful as they can, many end up being criminalized for being poor and homeless. For example, many receive expensive tickets for farebeating or loitering when they are riding the trains to stay dry or to have a place to spend the night. Some young people engage in the sex trade in order to make money or find a place to stay, which puts them physically at risk, health- and safety-wise. Young people often feel unsafe in the adult shelter system, and have to make incredibly difficult choices from day to day, night to night.

Being unable to safely meet basic needs, such as food and respite, has a huge impact on physical, sexual, and mental health. This, in turn, affects one’s ability to focus on long-term goals, such as employment and education, or tend to healthy self-care practices, such as regularly going to the doctor for checkups or treatment, or practicing safer sex and preventing STI and HIV transmission. Being on the streets increases the risk of being robbed or assaulted, or having negative interactions with law enforcement. Being homeless, poor, and underserved takes a huge toll on emotional health. There are an interconnected cycle of circumstances in play that makes attaining any sense of normalcy in life really challenging. Most of this can be avoided or alleviated, starting with increasing access to affordable housing and safe shelter options for youth.

I noticed that some of your staff are former clients that you have provided services to. Can you tell us a bit about the importance of hiring staff that have shared experiences of the homeless youth you serve?  

Over the years, Streetwork has had former clients come back to the program from the staff angle, which is a really special product of the wonderful work we have done and continue to do at the program. Everyone who chooses this work has a special reason for it, but when someone’s choice is informed by the positive experience they had as a client, it brings a unique sense of pride, care, and duty into the space. Our clients are all extremely protective of the program, and many of them express wanting to give back to it someday.

We’re so honored when we’re presented with the opportunity to explore candidacy with former clients, and we recognize the impact of our work with youth. Many of our former clients have gone to work in social services, not just at Streetwork project, but at programs all over. We had a former client, now a social worker, recently bring her entire team from a youth program way upstate just to tour Streetwork and learn about the way we engage youth. It was amazing to see this woman, well into her 30s, use her personal experience with our program as a tool to introduce her supervisor to harm reduction and inform her team about ways they, too, could successfully shape their programming to better meet their clients’ needs. I hope she ends up running her own program someday—her lived experience shaped her desire to create a space as welcoming and positive as the one she had at Streetwork Project.

Photo courtesy of Streetwork Project

What does it mean to be an ally to homeless and street involved youth?  

If I could give useful perspective to those who seek to be allies—firstly, check your biases. Many people tend to judge and criminalize youth in general, but when they are people of color or LGBTQ-identified, that tends to become even more concentrated. To eliminate homelessness and poverty, we all must acknowledge and address oppression of all forms. Here’s a few suggestions that I often share with those looking to be better allies:

Think beyond your assumptions about what homelessness looks like. Most homeless youth appear to be well kempt, and thus, go unnoticed or unrecognized as homeless. Like anyone, but especially like any young person, homeless youth want to fit into society, to belong to peer groups and social settings. They understand and want to avoid the stigma of being labeled “homeless”. They go to school and work, like anyone else, and try to keep up appearances just the same as you or I.

Do not tell people what you think they have to do to “fix” their lives. If they could simply get a job/save money/go to school with the ease in which you might think they could, don’t you think they would have done it already? Homelessness is more complex than that, and is a systemic—not individual—problem.

Hold your local, state, and federal government accountable for how poor people are unjustly treated, often ignored, and definitely criminalized. Get involved in movements that address homelessness and give of your own resources: time, money, goods, and services. Network with your friends and associates to raise funds or donate needed items to local service providers (ask them what they need first). Volunteer at a homeless services program (ask them what they need help with first).

Build respectful awareness—these are your neighbors, too! If you notice that some of your fellow community members are homeless, seek out ways to help them—not hide or harm them—by supporting or bringing in supportive outreach services.

Finally, what’s your favorite Dr. Bronner’s product and scent?  

THIS is tough, because I have loved Dr. Bronner’s since high school. I’ve tried every product released! Scent-wise, I’m a classic Peppermint and an Almond fan. However, I really dig that fragrance-free all-over body balm—it’s great for EVERYTHING, including hair frizz and chapped lips. You can throw it right in your bag and be set! I’m dying for Dr. Bronner’s to come out with deodorant! Wait, do you make that? I need a good natural one that can keep up with my busy day!

Author Profile

Ryan Fletcher

Ryan Fletcher is Dr. Bronner’s Director of Public Relations and leads the company’s animal advocacy and international philanthropy programs. Ryan has worked with Dr. Bronner’s since 2006.

See all stories by Ryan Fletcher