There are few crises facing modern society as concerning as youth homelessness. According to estimates by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, some 550,000 youths and young adults—more than 50% of whom are under 18—experience a period of homelessness lasting more than seven days.
Although homelessness can affect youths of any demographic, those involved in child welfare and juvenile justice systems are more likely to find themselves in situations of housing insecurity or homelessness. Additionally, LGBTQ youth, those who are pregnant or are young parents, and those with any special medical or behavioral circumstances are at special risk of becoming homeless. This is especially urgent when considering that homeless youths are targeted by human traffickers and are especially vulnerable of being sexually exploited or trapped in situations of forced labor.
The need for an approach to solve this issue, to meet the complex and unique needs of this vulnerable homeless population, has been deeply felt across the nation.
To this end, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which includes the Department of Education, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development, created a set of criteria and benchmarks to help coordinate the various and disparate programs available in communities across the country to form a united front—a coordinated community response—against youth homelessness.
These criteria and benchmarks, first released in January of 2017 and updated in February of 2018, help communities evaluate and improve their responses to youth homelessness in their area. The five criteria focus on the stages of identifying and helping homeless youth, not only to escape their situation but to find perpetual security in the future:
- The community identifies all unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness
- The community uses prevention and diversion strategies whenever possible, and otherwise provides immediate access to low-barrier crisis housing and services to any youth who needs and wants it
- The community uses coordinated entry processes to effectively link all youth experiencing homelessness to housing and service solutions that are tailored to their needs
- The community acts with urgency to swiftly assist youth to move in to permanent or non-time-limited housing options with appropriate services and supports
- The community has resources, plans, and system capacity in place to continue to prevent and quickly end future experiences of homelessness among youth
The benchmarks outlined by the Interagency Council on Homelessness primarily measure the results of these efforts to determine whether they align with the federal goals, whether the community is falling behind, or whether the program simply needs more time after implementation to see the desired results. If these benchmarks are met, the community may be confirmed as having achieved the government’s goals.
Across the country, communities are looking for new and innovative ways to accomplish these goals.
In Cincinnati, where 25% of the homeless population is under 18, a new program called Key to a Future Without Youth Homelessness (KEYS) was founded with the goal of solving this problem by 2020. The KEYS initiative’s strategy is fourfold: first, to prevent youths from becoming homeless in the first place; second, to shelter those who are currently homeless; third, to help youths who are now homeless to end their homeless episode as quickly as possible; and fourth, to provide previously-homeless youths with education and support necessary to prevent another episode.
The initiative employs a Youth Dedicated Service Team, who are a group of care professionals and housing managers who serve to help young people as they transition into more secure housing situations. And beyond connecting youths to housing, KEYS provides services specifically for LGBTQ youth, victims of human trafficking, and those who are pregnant or young parents.
“If we can address the issue while they’re young,” says Kevin Ginn, CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, “then hopefully we can keep them out of not only the homeless system, which will [be] a broader impact on the community. We don’t want young homeless people to become old homeless people.”
Meanwhile, Portland, Oregon is taking a tastier approach. For the past eight years, a local nonprofit called New Avenues for Youth has co-opted Ben & Jerry’s National Free Cone Day and turned it into the Scoop-a-Thon—an opportunity for youths experiencing homelessness to gain work experience and marketable job skills. On this day, at the two Ben & Jerry’s shops, the store is entirely staffed by homeless youths (except of course for managerial positions), and donations to New Avenues for Youth are accepted.
“The youth we serve face a lot of challenges and barriers to successful employment,” says Angela Pratt, spokeswoman for the nonprofit. “… In order for young people to be self-sufficient and independent, they need jobs and we provide a safe and supportive environment for them to learn the skills they need to succeed.”
Of course, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. What makes sense in one community may not make sense in another, but as each seeks to address their own unique circumstances and to provide the youths within their jurisdiction with the resources they will need to find stability, there will be countless positive stories like these. Data-driven criteria and benchmarks like those promoted by the Interagency Council on Homelessness cannot take the place of the personalized care and attention these youths need, but utilizing data to measure progress and efficiency enables communities large and small to see where they are falling short and where they can better focus their efforts to end youth homelessness. Eccovia Solutions is proud to be able to support our clients who work tirelessly to achieve this important goal.