The following is the keynote address delivered by Nan Roman on February 8, 2012 at the National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness in Los Angeles, Calif.
Welcome to the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness, and thank all of you for coming. We deeply appreciate that you have taken the time to come here and hopefully it will recharge your batteries, give you some new ideas, reaffirm you in what you are doing that is working, and energize you for the future.
When we first started this families conference it was because, as happy as we were about the progress in framing and elevating the issue of chronic homelessness, we were concerned that homeless families were not getting enough attention. We started holding this conference as part of our strategy to build the case for ending family homelessness: to examine and expand the data and research; to strengthen the network of people working together to advance the goal; to help identify the growing portfolio of best practices and help people adopt them; and ultimately to bring the attention to the topic that was needed to reduce the number of homeless families in the nation.
That was a challenging goal, but I think you have accomplished a tremendous amount. The profile of family homelessness has been raised; a framework for ending family homelessness has emerged and been widely adopted; and despite the difficult economic environment, progress has been made.
With respect to youth, we are in some ways where we were on families eight or nine years ago. Youth homelessness is acknowledged to be a significant and serious problem, but very little progress has been made over the past years in terms of raising its profile, clarifying the path forward nationally, attracting resources, or reducing the numbers. That must change. And we at the Alliance believe that to make that happen, we need to start with a clear framework for ending it that sizes the problem, and lays out the solutions. So at this conference we are going to start that process.
But I will begin with families. This remains a very challenging time for vulnerable families. In addition to incomes going down, housing prices are rising and likely to continue to do so. State and locally funde d support services are being cut, and federally-funded assistance will increasingly also be cut. There have been increases in homelessness among families, but these appear to have been moderated by the availability of the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) money.
I want to say a few things about HPRP funds. They are of course almost gone. What did we learn from the $1.5 billion devoted to prevention and re-housing? First, we know that a substantial amount of the money went to prevention. We know very little in detail about the effectiveness of this, and based on what we do know, it does not appear that the funds were always as well targeted as they might have been. The characteristics of people who receive prevention assistance should, logically, mirror those of families that are actually in shelter; otherwise the prevention families probably would not likely have become homeless. And there are too many places where the eligibility criteria for those receiving prevention funds were far too high. On the other hand, the number of homeless families nationally did not go up during HPRP, so overall it seems to have worked even if the impacts might have been greater had we targeted more effectively.
In terms of re-housing, the success of that is clearer. Where there is data, it looks good, with only a small minority of families returning to homelessness after receiving assistance, at least in the short run.
In any case, HPRP is going away, and this gives us great concern for the future. Not only will we lose our HPRP funds, but federal funds generally are also going to start shrinking. Need will remain high and possibly increase as the cascading set of problems associated with the poor economy plays out for families and youth. More are likely to become homeless, and indeed this is already happening in many places.
Based upon what we have learned, how should we think about family homelessness and what to do about it in an era of shrinking resources? Are there things that we can do so that we leave fewer families un-served? Can we focus more on efficiency, effectiveness and targeting; proven ways to improve our impact? Can we do better at assessing more precisely what each family needs? And since we know that it is impossible to precisely assess a family’s needs, can we establish a fall back plan or process so that we catch those families for whom the initial intervention is too “light.” We can try an intervention, and if it works, fine. But if it does not work, we need to be prepared with the next step, and the next step, and the next step until the family is stabilized. There is a name for this process, of course, which is progressive engagement.
These are concepts that many of you will have heard before. At present, I think that they have two major implications.
The first is that we are essentially talking about shifting from a program-level to a systems-level approach. Assessment, assignment of people to particular interventions, the ability to follow up – these are best accomplished at the system level. And of course, this is what HEARTH Act implementation will also be advancing.
The second is that at both program and systems levels, we have to reassess whether we have the proper array of models; whether we have enough of each of the models (or can get there); and whether we are efficiently disbursing these models. This brings me to HPRP, shelter, resources, and transitional housing.
We learned a few things from HPRP about rapid re-housing. One was that it works. It is not perfect, and there has to be programming for those for whom it is not adequate. But it is inexpensive and it works for the majority of people who receive it. It often works as well or better, in terms of outcomes, than other types of homeless programs which are also considerably more expensive. More expensive programs might be preferable or worth considering, of course, if their outcomes were better, but this does not appear to be the case.
It is certainly true that we do not have extensive national data on rapid re-housing – rather the data tends to be from individual cities (although its costs and outcomes are consistent). Further, some say that the families being served by rapid re-housing programs are the easier-to-serve families that communities think will benefit from a lighter touch. And I believe that is sometimes the case. But this is also true of transitional housing, which tends to have a high threshold for entry, and a low tolerance for non-compliance with services, both of which work against serving high-need families.
The point of this discussion is to say that in rapid re-housing we have a new intervention that works to end homelessness for families, apparently very effectively and cost efficiently. In fact, it outperforms the current system in many respects. The last thing we should do, as the HPRP money runs out and we resume funding entirely from HUD Continuum of Care/HEARTH and demand goes up, is to drop something that works well and serves more people and resume doing things that are more expensive and less effective and threaten to leave more and more families un-served.
Where we can, we should be looking for places to shift resources and activities to the rapid re-housing model, and many places and programs are already doing this. Traditional transitional housing programming might then be used as a second stage for higher-need people for whom rapid re-housing has not worked, in a progressive engagement system. It is likely too expensive to be an initial or post-shelter intervention.
I want to mention one other reason it is important to be thinking about this. The recent AHARs and point-in-time counts have identified around 40 percent of homeless people as being unsheltered. We are not now meeting need and the need is going to go up. We cannot leave more people out of our programs, especially if we think we have a way to help them. I would also like to say that this is why we at the National Alliance to End Homelessness are not in favor of HR 32, the bill the would expand the definition of homelessness to include all families that are low income and doubled up. These families do have housing needs, but they are not literally homeless and we already have more literally homeless families than we can help.
There are a few other observations I would like to make about rapid re-housing. First, it will change and get better as we learn more about it.
Second, there certainly has been an inclination in communities to provide rapid re-housing money only to those who had a job or otherwise seemed able to get right back on their feet. Families with more problems were screened out. However, there is increasing evidence that more complicated families do just fine with rapid re-housing. Third, there is no disconnect between doing rapid re-housing and providing people with services. There are many models for linking rapid re-housing with services – transition in place, critical time intervention, ongoing case management, etc. Rapid re-housing and services are not opposing goals. They are congenial.
The bottom line, as we move forward with HEARTH, the new ESG and tightening money, we have an effective new tool with rapid re-housing and we should do more of it, not less; we should do this in the context of a progressive engagement system so that there are options like transitional housing immediately on hand for those for whom rapid re-housing does not work; and we should use the savings to help more families and provide better services. The idea is to be smarter, better, and leave fewer families behind – not to do less and let families fail. We can do better.
I would like to turn now to homeless youth. While good work has been done on youth homelessness, we are not where we want to be on the issue.
We have not had information about the size of the homeless youth population; we have not had a typology; and we have not had evidence as to what interventions worked better and for whom. As a result we have not been able to create the will to go to scale and have not been able to increase resources appreciably. Whether we have had any impact on the number of homeless youth is unclear, as we lack the data to make such an assessment. This situation cannot continue.
I want to present to you a first attempt at a framework that can describe the scope of the homeless youth problem. But first, I have a disclaimer. The numbers I am going to present are not nearly as strong as we would like them to be. We know that they will improve and that as they do we will have to refine this framework. So we welcome feedback and see this is a first step.
How many homeless youth are there? The number you have probably heard over the years is 1.7 million. This number comes from the NISMART – the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children. The 1.7 million number, which was based on a 1999 survey, includes children under 18 who are reported to be gone from home, but who are not precisely homeless as we understand that word.
Nevertheless, this is the source of this number and it is an annual number.
Looking in more depth at that number, we find that of this 1.7 million, 300,000 kids are home within 24 hours and 1 million more are home with a week. That leaves 400,000, broadly defined, who are homeless longer than a week.
Do we or should we concern ourselves with the 1.3 million who quickly return home? Certainly some of these youth currently get assistance from our homeless youth programs, but they can serve only about 50,000 youth a year. One way to analyze these numbers would be to say that we have a gap in services, and that we need to be able to assist an additional one-and-a-quarter million young people every year. An alternative way to look at it might be that 96 percent of these young people are going home more or less on their own within one week. We certainly could do a better job helping them; and we certainly should do a better job helping them. But the more intensive focus of our attention should probably be on those 400,000 who need more help to go home, or who cannot go home, since clearly the 1.3 million are going to go home no matter what we do or do not do.
Accordingly, we focused on the 400,000 who needed more help. To understand the population better, we applied a new typology created by Dr. Paul Toro, a prominent researcher on homelessness among children and youth. I should be clear that although Dr. Toro developed the typology, the decision to apply it to the NISMART numbers was ours, and the framework that follows is the responsibility of the Alliance. For those of you who want to know more, Dr. Toro will present the typology and Samantha Batko from the Alliance will present the framework at a workshop following this plenary.
Applying the typology to the 400,000 single unaccompanied youth, and adjusting so that the typology is consistent with the annualized NISMART data, we arrived at the following:
- 85 percent, or 327,000, of the youth are still connected to school or home. We called them “temporarily connected.” Two-thirds of them will return home within a month.
- The remaining 15 percent (about 55,000) are “unstably connected” to school or home, or “unconnected” (about evenly split). What should we do to end homelessness for these youth?
While the Alliance often focuses on housing as a solution to homelessness, housing does not appear to be the primary solution for many under-18, unaccompanied youth. Since many of them will return home within a month, and since all youth need some connection with a caring adult, it appears to us that a primary strategy is to reconnect them to family. This family may not be the one they had been living with and of course it must be safe. It does not appear to be a good idea to capture them into housing programs, because this delinks them from the adult connections they already have. The youth are going to go “home”; we should help them get there quickly and safely.
The small percentage of youth who have no connection to school or family and who will not be able to go home also tends to have more significant disabilities. For them, permanent housing or permanent supportive housing is probably a good option, recognizing that adult connection will still be needed.
The typology and data described above relate to single unaccompanied youth under 18 years old. With respect to single unaccompanied youth aged 18 to 24 years, a different approach and a different set of data are required. We sized this group using adjusted HMIS data. By this means we identified 150,000 youth, but as this is the sheltered population only we believe the number to be an underestimate. In terms of a typology, we applied the single adult typology developed by Dr. Dennis Culhane to this population to see the dimension of the need. Using this method, we found the following:
- About 80 percent, or 122,000, will have short, non-recurring spells of homelessness.
- About 20 percent will have episodic or long stays, about half of each. This is about 28,000 youth.
- For all these youth, although they are older, family intervention and reunification would still be an important strategy, since they are still developing.
- With respect to housing, for the short term group rapid re-housing is likely a good approach.
- For the longer-term episodic and chronic groups, rapid re-housing may also be appropriate but many will need more intensive housing interventions. For the 10 percent, or 15,000, who are “chronically” homeless, transition-in-place housing or even permanent supportive housing should be considered.
Finally, we considered homeless families in which a parent is under 24. Such families generally use the adult homeless family system.
Approximately 25 percent of homeless families in a year have a parent who is under 25. We can estimate that at around 150,000 people per year (this includes children, so not all of these are technically youth). While the adult family system largely meets their needs, maintaining connection to adults is still critically important. Also, the Alliance has been working with several groups here in Los Angeles and elsewhere on a young families initiative funded by the Hilton Foundation. This project has made it apparent that specialized programming that young parents – who are themselves still developing – need is rarely if ever available. We could do a much better job of programming for this significant group.
To take this complex picture and try to summarize:
- Many youth leave home every year, but most of them go back more or less on their own.
- It appears that somewhere around 550,000 single, unaccompanied youth do not go home so quickly.
- Of those, however, around 450,000 remain connected in some way to family or school, and in any case their homelessness episode will be reasonably brief. That episode could be even shorter if they had help re-connecting with their families.
- For nearly 100,000 unaccompanied youth, issues are more serious. Their connection to home or school is more tenuous or non-existent. About 40,000 of them probably have some disability or more serious problem. These youth also would absolutely benefit from help to connect with their families. The more chronic ones probably also will require more permanent housing subsidies.
In short, the picture on unaccompanied homeless youth is similar in some ways to that of homeless adults – most of those who become homeless go home fairly quickly, but a minority has more serious problems and stays homeless longer. The difference between adults and youth appears to be in the solution.
With respect to young homeless families, we know that we are already failing to meet the needs of all families, but the responses I discussed earlier, with the addition of developmental programming and family intervention will help these young households.
There are a few other important things I want to mention about homeless youth. First, it seems clear that LGBTQ kids have some different problems, that very little programming meets their needs, and that generally we are doing an extraordinarily poor job of assisting them. Second, this typology does not really address the sexual exploitation of youth as both a cause and effect of their homelessness. Both of these are areas in which a tremendous amount remains to be done, and the Alliance is committed to addressing them.
It must be noted that it is of particular concern that such a large number of young people under 18 are homeless, given that there are large federal and state child welfare systems that have the responsibility for these children. I know that many people at HHS are also very concerned about this and working to improve that response. We will hear more from them during the conference.
Finally, I want to reiterate the data on which we are building this framework is weak. We have consulted quite a few researchers and they generally believe that our numbers are far too large. I hope that they are right. Some of you may feel that they are too small. The bottom line is that we must have better data. You are the source of better data. Get involved in your Point-in-Time Counts. Use HMIS. Collect data on young families. Push your Continuums to collect more data. We need knowledge to move forward.
To close, thanks to all of you who are prevailing in the most incredibly difficult and challenging time. You are striving to improve your programs in a time of high demand and shrinking resources, with little certainty about the future. We do have a steep hill ahead of us, as I think things will get worse as HPRP ends. However, I see ways to move forward.
Because of your hard and incredibly innovative work, every year we are discovering new things that work better. We can build and implement a framework on how to end youth homelessness. We can adopt smarter strategies to help families. We can move from program to systems approaches so that we use our resources as wisely as possible. We can gather and use more data and research – information is a strong weapon for us, and we will definitely be doing battle over the coming years.
I know that we can prevail, because we must prevail. Thank you for being with us.