Youth homelessness is an overwhelming national problem, but it doesn’t have to mean hopelessness. Throughout the nation are organizations and communities providing recognition, resources, technology, and opportunities to help youth experiencing homelessness find shelter, safety, and stability.
According to the National Alliance of Homelessness, as many as 550,000 youths or young adults experience homelessness for an episode of longer than one week. In a single night in 2018, 36,361 unaccompanied youth were counted as homeless, 89% of them between the ages of 18 to 24, and the remaining 11%—over 4,000—were unaccompanied children under 18. Further, 51 percent of homeless youth are unsheltered.
According to San Diego Youth Services, California saw 32 percent increase in youth homelessness since 2015, with experts noting that these numbers are likely undercounted, and a recent US News report tells us the number of “invisible youth homeless”—that is, students—has likewise soared. Eric Wright, a medical sociologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who has studied homeless youth, says these young people are very challenging to engage and need intensive, specialized programs well beyond housing.
Of course, the ideal solution for most homeless youth is reunification with their families, where safe and possible. But where that is not possible, such as in cases of abuse or neglect, there are many who are taking on this critical challenge. In March, HUD released the FY 2018 Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program’s NOFA opportunity, which would award $75 million to up to 25 communities to enable them to adopt a coordinated community approach to addressing youth homelessness, a demonstration with the objectives of building national momentum, evaluating the coordinated community approach, expanding capacity to serve homeless youth, evaluate performance measures, and establish a framework for federal program and TA collaboration. These funds were made available to demonstrate how a comprehensive approach can prove pivotal in ending youth homelessness.
Meanwhile, some jurisdictions around the country have begun focusing on housing as part of the planning when releasing youths. Sarah Cusworth Walker, a research associate professor at the University of Washington Department of Psychiatry and SAJE co-director, says that if courts focus on kids at risk of getting kicked out or running away, “then you might be able to take a big cut out of down-the-road housing instability.” And an Open Minds Report has identified 11 vital “best practices” for cross-system youth collaboration focusing on data integration for coordinated assessment and case management. These practices range from inter-agency collaboration for a complete and cohesive effort to assessment process of dually-involved youth, transition plans, permanency and placement, service provision, and tracking.
Looking at the issue from a different angle, the SAJE Centre, a collaboration among Washington universities and the Washington State Center for Court Research, sees about 360 homeless or at-risk youth each year. Washington’s Snohomish and Kitsap County have been working with SAJE on a plan to better screen young people with a history of family conflict and running away. King County Juvenile Court, in partnership with nonprofit YouthCare, already hosts a housing navigator and is working with SAJE to strengthen that effort. Snohomish and Kitsap Counties expect to hire housing navigators this year. Other courts, councils, jurisdictions and recent changes to laws also are now focusing on housing as part of the plan for releasing youths.
Cincinnati, Ohio has a new program for youth experiencing homelessness called Key to a Future Without Youth Homelessness (KEYS). In a city where 25% of the homeless population is under 18, the KEYS program was founded with the goal of solving this problem by 2020. A Youth Dedicated Service Team, of care professionals and housing managers, help young people at risk transition into more secure housing situations. KEYS also provides services specifically for LGBTQ youth, victims of human trafficking, and pregnant/young-parent youth.
Meanwhile, in Connecticut, advocates, providers, state agencies and young adults have been joining to launch eight 100-Day Challenges to end youth homelessness in Connecticut – with housing a priority. And thanks to a variety of local philanthropies, it’s more than a statewide effort – it’s a first for the nation.
Homeless youth are among the most vulnerable of vulnerable populations, and their specific challenges vary by community. Coordinated, community-based programs that connect youth with housing and supportive services will continue to play a critical role in ending youth homelessness and helping them live healthy and productive lives.