Homelessness is a complex social challenge. Of all the affected populations – veterans, families, or the cognitively impaired – youth homelessness is among the most far-reaching and expensive.
“Family and child homelessness is a crisis, and it is not getting the attention it deserves,” said Ellen Bassuk, M.D. She was the lead author of the 2014 report America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness. “One in 30 American children—2.5 million—were homeless in 2013…these are historically high rates.”
The situation has not improved. A 2018 report issued by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness found that homeless families with children represent one-third of all people experiencing homelessness on a given night. Some 59 percent of people experiencing homelessness in families are children under the age of 18.
Policymakers and child welfare managers are deploying solutions to counter youth homelessness. In August 2019 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded $75 million to fund “innovative youth housing programs” in 23 local communities, including in eight rural areas. The Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP) funding is nearly twice that of HUD youth housing grants awarded in 2018. YHDP recipients will use this funding to support a variety of housing options for young people under the age of 25 and who are homeless. YHDP will support youth-focused performance measurement and coordinated data entry systems to quickly connect young people with other services and systems of care.
Such data entry solutions are essential, especially platforms that gather data from across different agencies. The New York City government, for example, applied data and analytics to reduce homelessness and cost savings, according to the Harvard Ash Center. The NYC program data-driven strategy reduced the number of shelter applications by nearly 50 percent. It also reduced the number of days in a shelter by 70 percent, resulting in $1.37 in savings for every dollar spent on the program.
Another organization, Community Solutions, a nonprofit, develops real-time data on homelessness. The agency seeks to optimize local housing resources, tracking progress against monthly goals, and accelerating the spread of proven strategies. Kaiser Permanente is working with Community Solutions in 15 of its patient communities to deploy a community care coordination solution to homelessness that contributes to poor health outcomes.
Youth homelessness is especially tragic. According to the nonprofit Child Trends, in the 2016-2017 school year, 1.4 million students aged six to 18 were homeless. Disability rates are also higher among children and youth experiencing homelessness compared to their peers. During the 2015-2016 school year, the average rate of an identified disability among homeless students was 21 percent. This compares to about 13 percent of the overall student population in public schools.
The causes of youth homeless are varied, but break down into three categories:
1: Family problems: Many homeless youths leave home after years of physical and sexual abuse, strained relationships, addiction of a family member, or parental neglect. Disruptive family conditions are the principal reason that young people leave home, including physical or sexual abuse, and family addiction. One study found more than half of the youth interviewed during shelter stays reported that their parents either told them to leave or knew they were leaving and did not care.
2: Economic problems: Some youth may become homeless when their families suffer financial crises. Causes include resulting lack of affordable housing, limited employment opportunities, insufficient wages, no medical insurance, or inadequate welfare benefits. These youth become homeless with their families but are later separated from them by shelter, transitional housing, or child welfare policies
3: Residential instability: A history of foster care correlates with becoming homeless at an earlier age and remaining homeless for a longer period of time. Some youth living in residential or institutional placements become homeless upon discharge. They are too old for foster care but are discharged with no housing or income support. One national study reported that more than one in five youth who arrived at shelters came directly from foster care; more than one in four had been in foster care in the previous year.
Such Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) factors are a proven root causes of higher social and medical spending. Homelessness impacts a wide range of child outcomes. Researchers found that the average number of childhood moves was higher for those who had been exposed to any adverse childhood experiences (ACE). This includes childhood abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, and other events. As the frequency of residential moves increased, the likelihood for ACE events also increased.
Metric driven programs, such as YDHP, are gaining credibility in reducing youth homelessness. Measurement is key. For example, Point Source Youth, founded in 2015 to reduce youth homelessness in 50 U.S cities, receives varied funding for its preventative, short term, and long-programs. Its rapid rehousing program was expected to place 38 youth in rental housing in its first year. A Baltimore program has trained 15 pro bono lawyers to help homeless youth with legal matters, such as landlord-tenant, foster care, and criminal record expungement issues. With funding from Abell Foundation, the Baltimore program also expects to place 40 teens in housing and place 60 others with employers. In Indianapolis, which received $3.88 million in the latest YDHP grant round, more than 2,000 youth age 15-25 are homeless.
“We believe every youth and young adult has the right to be housed and connected to care. That is the vision of the Indianapolis Coordinated Community Plan to Resolve Homelessness for Youth and Young Adults,” said Chelsea Haring-Cozzi, Executive Director of the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention.