Pathfinders began in 1970, serving runaway and homeless street youth that were highly visible on the east side of Milwaukee. Our clients and our organization suffer from romanticized memories of that tumultuous time period, implying our youthful clients merely test their boundaries in search of greater independence. The realities of generations of trauma in our city, caused by the loss of factory jobs, pervasive poverty, incarceration, teen pregnancy, racism and homophobia, has led to 500 homeless youth on the streets of Milwaukee, 42% of youth living in poverty and the city’s recognition as a hub of human trafficking.

Thanksgiving at Pathfinders.

Pathfinders brings safety, hope and healing to low-income youth and young adults dealing with homelessness, sex trafficking, sexual abuse, family problems, and mental health issues. Additionally, Pathfinders provides pregnancy prevention and youth empowerment education. We aim to overcome these circumstances for all young people in a way that is consistent with the organization’s mission of Empowering Youth, Changing Lives.

Through a strengths-based program, Pathfinders provides a continuum of well-structured services for youth in crisis. Using the conceptual frameworks of harm reduction, Positive Youth Development and Trauma Informed Care, youth are seen as assets and partners in service delivery as well as in need of specialized interventions that take into account their upsetting and distressed histories. Pathfinders’ innovative and highly effective services include prevention education workshops and groups; individualized counseling and/or case management; youth leadership development initiatives; behavioral reassignment middle school; a combination of run away and homeless services for youth ages 25 and under; and positive peer activities that provide safe and structured opportunities.

Pathfinders has assembled a federally supported RHYA continuum of care that includes:

  • Street outreach to identity and serve at-risk youth in central city neighborhoods
  • Youth Shelter that houses 8 homeless youth at one time, with individual and group counseling and a 24/7 hotline
  • Drop-In Center created by and for at-risk and homeless youth and young adults with basic needs services along with case management, counseling and employment skills building
  • Supportive housing to help young people achieve and retain a home of their own, including LGBT, those with disabilities and young people aging out of foster care
  • Counseling and advocacy to overcome sexual abuse/exploitation/trafficking experiences

Pathfinders serves over 7,000 youth and young adults annually; they safely exit our shelter, they find support and care from our staff in all programs, they get housed, they get employed, and they find help in our facilities as well as on the streets of their neighborhoods. RHYA funding ensures that this broad continuum of services, responding to essential services that our youth have told us they need, continues to exist.

An example of the powerful effect that Pathfinders’ RHYA services provides is Courtney. Courtney came to Pathfinders four years ago, aged 19, suffering from severe depression and psychosis, which resulted in her being kicked out of ALL the shelters in Milwaukee. She was living on the streets, feeling hopeless and tired, and wanting to give up.   After receiving support from her Pathfinders Street Outreach worker and connections to resources, Courtney has been able to move forward with her life. She now has a housing voucher and has moved into an apartment. She loves having her own space, and has gained incredible pride in herself! Courtney now receives regular mental health and physical health treatment. Her therapy is helping her to better manage her feelings and emotions. In addition, she now receives Social Security benefits to help her meet her financial needs and she has a financial counselor to assist her in learning how to budget. She has cleared up past court-related issues by volunteering at a non-profit agency, and has re-established positive relationships with many of her family members, which she is very excited about. Courtney takes the bus from her apartment to the Pathfinders Drop-In Center where she spends time interacting and developing social skills with peers.

The heart of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act creates a structure that honors the individuality and independence of our young people while providing them with the safety net they need to navigate their tumultuous transition to adulthood. That is why Pathfinders LOVES RHYA!

Celebrating the anniversary of Pathfinders’ Drop-In Center!

NN4Y's #ILoveRHYA Campaign


Darla Bardine


July 6, 2017

775 words3.1 min read