April 26, 2016

The Inner Journey Home: How Mindfulness & Yoga can Combat Homelessness.


Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is the power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~ Viktor E. Frankl

On a list of basic necessities, mindfulness doesn’t usually make the Top 10. Shelter may provide us with a physical house, but how do we find a home mentally and emotionally within ourselves? And why is that so important in helping young people get off and stay off the streets?

My name is Forest Fein, and I lead Mindfulness for Urban Youth programs in San Francisco, designed for homeless and at-risk youth to prevent and treat stress, anxiety and depression and to nurture mental, emotional and physical well-being.

I collaborated with Micro-Documentaries to create the short film Yoga and Mindfulness as part of the #LetsGetStreetSmart film series, which explores San Francisco’s journey to long-term solutions for the homelessness crisis. In any given day, there are about 1,000 youth living on the street in the city, and about 1.5 million across the nation. That number is much higher when factoring in youth who are in unstable housing situations or temporarily off the streets. Through this short film, I hope to make public a potential solution to youth homelessness, and draw attention to the necessity of mindfulness for both emotional and physical well-being.

Finding the root of someone’s pain

We commonly attribute homelessness to poor choices and mental health issues, but what we need to consider is that homelessness is systemic. Giving someone a bed, food and even job skills aren’t enough. If inner development and transformation are not addressed, the cycle of homelessness continues.

Teaching mindfulness is only one part of a larger, intensive program at Larkin Street Youth Services in partnership with the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, which helps young people between the ages of 12 and 24, transition from, and stay off, the street for good. While giving someone a roof over their heads permanently is an important part of the process, we often overlook the other complex, internal barriers that make it very difficult to remain off the streets.

Having a home and feeling like you belong are two very different things. For young people who have grown up in the midst of instability, it is critical to develop a “home within,” the internal sense of belonging that mindfulness and yoga can foster. One could say mindfulness is just as important as professional skills development in ensuring sustainable change and helping youth transition off the streets.

Seeing the person behind the destructive behavior

We often ostracize teens and young adults who behave destructively. But recognizing that this arises from a past of instability, trauma and other negative experiences is the most useful first step to change, rather than seeing them as permanently damaged, “bad eggs” or otherwise problematic.

Acting out destructively towards others or oneself is often the result of not having the tools to cope with the underlying pain and suffering. These behaviors are used as defensive mechanisms, further deterring the person from understanding the root of the problem. Mindfulness offers tools that at-risk youth can use to observe knee-jerk reactions, allowing time to choose a skillful response, instead of a harmful one.

One of the direct impacts of practicing mindfulness is how it cultivates our awareness of, and stretches the time between, stimulus and response, to help students gain insight into counterproductive, often detrimental patterns and instead foster positive thoughts and responses. Doing so reduces unhealthy and destructive behavior as well as reduces impulsive and addictive tendencies. This in turn supports youth in making better choices, building healthier habits, and following through on their goals.

Seeking innovative solutions to homelessness

Richie Davidson, a leading contemplative neuroscientist at the Center for Healthy Minds says that well-being is something that can be trained, and new research around mindfulness research supports this.

A study involving 300 Baltimore public middle school students showed those who participated in the mindfulness program had significantly lower levels of depression, negative coping, self-hostility, trauma associated symptoms and improved psychological functioning.

My students have reported similar benefits, along with improved sleep, increased self-love and a greater sense of peace when faced with conflict. “I was going through a lot of struggles and totally lost my inner peace…I was hitting rock bottom. Ever since mindfulness started, I have never felt more calm and at peace…and a knowing that things are going to get better,” one said. This is what makes the work so rewarding; knowing that through mindfulness practices, my students are feeling a sense of hope for the future, and the empowerment to set goals to achieve their dreams.

Giving youth the tools to “find home” within themselves empowers them to create lasting change in their lives. This “inner journey home” is missing from most mainstream approaches that ultimately do not break the cycle of homelessness.

But mindfulness and yoga alone can’t break the cycle either—it is one of many tools that people need to get back on their feet. As we see the importance in looking beyond the “homeless” label to see the human behind it, we’re proud to be part of the #LetsGetStreetSmart movement in San Francisco. Larkin Street and Osher Center’s work goes alongside eight other innovative initiatives in San Francisco who are doing the same, meeting people experiencing homelessness where they are and contributing to this long-term change.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my time working with homeless youth, it’s that the root causes of homelessness vary widely—I hope I’ve provided some insight into one of them as well as what a possibility for addressing it looks like.

Check out the Yoga and Mindfulness video here:

Let’s Get Street Smart Ep. 5 Yoga & Mindfulness from Micro-Documentaries.com on Vimeo.


Author: Forest Fein

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Flickr/Har Gobind Singh Khalsa

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