Today’s guest post is written by Iain DeJong, who blogged from the National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness.
As discussed in the plenary sessions of the day, a framework is beginning to emerge thanks to the work of the Alliance and research from Dr. Paul Toro from Wayne State to better understand the number of youth that experience homelessness and the length of time that they experience homelessness. It is an exciting time to have renewed energy and focus of attention on such an important issue.
In the afternoon session focused on Effectively Collecting, Coordinating and Using Youth Data, Andre Wade from the Alliance moderated an informative and thought-provoking session featuring Mark Silverbush from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, Peter Connery from Applied Survey Research, and Shahera Hyatt from the California Homeless Youth Project. Passionate and informed speakers, they collectively raised the bar in how we need to think about data in the pursuit of ending youth homelessness.
Right-sizing interventions and costing out the appropriate response requires that we know how many youth experience homelessness and the depth of their support needs. Runaway and throwaway youth number 1.7 million; but that research does not focus on homeless youth exclusively. General point-in-time counts need improvements if they are going to effectively account for the number of homeless youth. Some jurisdictions have focused on youth specific counts; this is an encouraging practice, especially given that HMIS data is often incomplete or oblivious when it comes to youth.
Youth are not a homogeneous group. New efforts to improve data capture related to youth homelessness needs to appreciate the heterogeneity within the youth population. For example, strategies to meet the needs of LGBT youth may be very different than the needs of a youth that has had a recent argument at home; youth aging out of foster care may be different than youth that find themselves homeless as a result of intergenerational homelessness in their own family. Obviously there are overlaps across these populations. However, isolating specific needs will result in better knowledge and hopefully improve youth-specific interventions.
Peter Connery suggests that a two-step process can be helpful for better understanding the homeless youth needs in any community. The first step is an observation study. The second step is a more detailed survey conducted with a sample of the youth population. Surveys are administered by youth peers.
The findings from the survey conducted across multiple cities are illuminating. Gender breakdown from Peter’s research shows almost a 50-50 split amongst males and females (2 percent transgendered), and more are between the ages of 18 and 24. The top five factors that contributed to homelessness amongst youth were: conflict with parents/guardians, financial issues, emotional abuse, addiction and physical abuse. One in five of the youth surveyed indicated that their parents currently are or were homelessness. Almost 50 percent had parents or caregivers that abused drugs or alcohol when they were younger. More than a quarter had an instance of foster care.
Again, almost a quarter had their own children and almost 50 percent had their children living with them. Almost one in five do not seek services for fear of CPS and 15 perecnt do not seek services for fear of contact with their families. More than a third indicated they share sex, drugs, or both for a place to stay. Food insecurity was the top need of the youth surveyed. Counter to many misconceptions, almost 9 out of 10 of homeless youth surveyed stay in the same county year round. As Peter described “home grown and staying put….it isn’t a tourism problem.”
Shahera Hyatt offered a state-level perspective on homeless youth data. She explained that state-level data is important because funding is based on data and resources are limited. Measuring change over time is critical for state policy. Because data collection is inconsistent and unreliable, especially when it comes to homeless youth, the needs of homeless youth are under-represented. The data that does exist can be inaccurate, even fictitious, and that doesn’t help policymakers. Shahera explained the need for a State Interagency Council on Homelessness, a statewide task force on youth homelessness data, the need to coordinate existing state-level homelessness data collection among state agencies, coordinating with existing federal and local homelessness data collection efforts, modifying and utilizing existing statewide surveys and research and establishing uniform approaches to collecting data. There is also value in promoting and distributing a “best practices” toolkit with CoC jurisdictions.
Mark Silverbush offered insights into the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s efforts to get better youth data through specific youth counts. Very practically, Mark walked through the “nuts and bolts of conducting a successful homeless youth count” in an effort to offer insights into how other communities may go about doing their own successful homeless youth count. While Los Angeles admittedly has more youth service providers than other parts of the country, they do not have the capacity to meet the demand given the size of the issue in the CoC (3,959 homeless youth and most in the 18-24 year old category - roughly the same number of all homeless people in Oklahoma;), and the sheer geographic size that the CoC covers.
Mark explained the need for buy-in from youth-serving agencies to conduct a youth specific count. He further explained the need for role clarity, so that partners involved in the county have an understood purpose during the count. The strength of each partner helps make the count successful. Furthermore, through a revision of approach, they found that they got better count results when providers were counting in their own service area. Youth outreach workers have proven to be especially effective from planning through to implementation.
Work remains to be done to improve youth data. But the speakers in the session demonstrated some very promising approaches and thinking about making practical improvements. Following through on some of the approaches suggested may help improve youth homeless data across the country.
Iain De Jong is the President & CEO of OrgCode Consulting, Inc. He has been working with many communities to help them improve their housing programs in advance of HEARTH. He is a frequent and popular speaker at Alliance Conferences. You can see him at the Conference in February in Los Angeles. Iain is also the chief blogger, tweeter and FaceBook persona for OrgCode. Take a look at www.orgcode.com or @orgcode orwww.facebook.com/orgcode