8 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY February 1-7, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com 831 As a child, Willow Celeste experienced firsthand what it was like not having a stable place to live. Their family, led by two moms, faced frequent discrimination by landlords and sometimes there was no place to call the family’s own. “Growing up, housing was never really secure,” Celeste says. At 18, they were told they were on their own. “I didn’t have the support, my family was never there for me. So it’s kind of like, ‘you have to figure out adulthood for yourself,’” Celeste explains. They enrolled at CSU Monterey Bay. It was a struggle to find affordable housing, both on and off campus. Covid-19 hit during Celeste’s final semester as they completed their bachelor’s degree in cinematic arts and technology, and the reality sunk in that life after graduation wasn’t going to be what they expected. “It was a depressing time,” Celeste admits. A few months later Celeste saw a notice on Facebook about a new youth action board called Youth for Action created by the Coalition of Homeless Service Providers in Monterey and San Benito counties. Board members are required to be between the ages of 16 and 26 and have lived experience with homelessness. Celeste applied, was accepted and began their journey of learning how to speak up and out for youth who are experiencing housing insecurity. More and more, people with lived experience in homelessness are providing input into service programs, thanks to requirements at the federal and state level. The idea is that those who have experienced homelessness have valuable input. Older adults in charge may not understand what today’s youth are up against, Celeste says. “I’m trying to figure out a polite way of how to say this: They’re not youth anymore, they don’t know how it is to be youth in our current world,” Celeste adds. “It can be really hard when people in agencies are in power that are not people who have lived experience. Because if you’re not a person with lived experience, you’re going to come at that work very differently.” Since Youth For Action formed in September 2020, it’s been meeting regularly via Zoom and in person. Members are paid for their time, and besides the extra money, it gave Celeste a sense of purpose. Early on, the board was successful in contributing to the Coalition securing a state youth homelessness demonstration program grant of over $5 million. “That really showed me some of the power we have,” Celeste says. The Coalition was then tasked with deciding how to allocate the money to homelessness nonprofits for the specific purpose of serving youth. Youth for Action members served on the ranking and review committee, interviewing applicants and making the allocation decisions. “During these interviews the youth voice was intentionally uplifted,” Celeste says. Their feedback was more heavily weighted in scoring. Celeste says the other adults in the room didn’t always want to listen to what members had to say: “There’s always going to be adultism in those rooms.” But with the focus of the state grant program being on serving youth, members were given the power to speak out. “Because after all, that’s what these programs are supposed to be for,” Celeste says. “It’s important to really do what we can as youths to say, ‘This is our future. This is us you’re supposed to be taking care of. And what we say is important.’” Youth for Action has successfully been involved in other efforts, although not every initiative has worked. But Celeste says the experience and confidence they’ve gained in over three years on the board led them to getting their first office job, with Central Coast Center for Independent Living. The board is currently looking for new members. One goal this year is to produce a newsletter for youth, “tackling some common myths and misconceptions when it comes to homelessness,” Celeste says. To find out more about Youth for Action, or to apply, go to chsp.org/continuum-of-care/coc-activities/youth/ youth-for-action, or email Coordinator Sol Rivera at srivera@chsp.org. Youth Vote These young leaders have experienced homelessness and they have something to say. By Pam Marino Members of the Youth for Action board, from left to right: Danielle, Willow Celeste, Jordi and Jonan. The group meets weekly via Zoom or in person to find new ways to help youth experiencing homelessness, something they all have experienced firsthand. “This is our future. And what we say is important.” TaLeS FrOM THe area CODe COURTESY OF COALITION OF HOMELESS SERVICE PROVIDERS