07/25/2013 - Beyond the Point in Time Count: Connecting With Youth

In 2012, Philadelphia’s Point-In-Time (PIT) count found 31 unaccompanied youth in shelters, an underestimate of the true number of youth experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia. The People's Emergency Center recently evaluated a survey of more than 42,000 youth in Philadelphia’s public high schools and published the findings in Homeless Youth in Philadelphia: An Innovative Method for Identifying Youth Who Are Homeless. The report provides valuable insight into the risk behaviors and housing status of young people in the city, challenging us to find creative ways to connect with youth experiencing homelessness. 

Estimating the numbers of youth who are homeless is challenging as these young people expend incredible energy trying to remain hidden.  They are hidden from sight, bunking with friends or family instead of staying on the streets or in shelters.  They fear for their safety or are worried that they will be reported to authorities, or judged because they are homeless and so they avoid reaching out.  As a result, the PIT alone is unlikely to accurately estimate just how many youth are experiencing homelessness.

One possible tool communities could use along with the PIT to get better numbers is the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which was developed by the Centers for Disease Control. The survey is conducted with public high school students every two years and includes questions about such risky behaviors as physical safety, mental health, substance use, and sexual activities.  Data collected is considered representative of youth in 9th and 12th grades across the U.S.; therefore, comparisons can be made across school districts, allowing the survey to be implemented at the state or community level.

In collaboration with city officials and the school district, three housing-related questions were added to the 2009 and 2011 Philadelphia YRBS at no additional cost, giving the city a more in-depth way to understand the youth experiencing homelessness. Those questions were:

  • Where do you typically sleep at night?
  • During the past 30 days, did you live away from your parents because you were kicked out, ran away, were abandoned, or removed from your parents?
  • Have you ever considered yourself to be homeless?

The findings are stunning:

  • In 2011, or at least one youth in every classroom (approximately 8 percent) across all Philadelphia public high school students reported having experienced homelessness , doubling since 2009.
  • Almost 11 percent reported that they had been kicked out, run-away, or been abandoned in the past thirty days, tripling since 2009.
  • Youth who reported having ever been homeless and youth who reported having been kicked out, run-away, or having been abandoned, evidenced disproportionately higher rates of physical and sexual health risk behaviors, worse mental health and higher rates of substance use.

Compared to housed youth, youth who were homeless with their families were:

  • 2.6 times more likely to be forced to have sex;
  • Over three times more likely to get pregnant; and
  • Three times more likely to have attempted suicide.

It is possible that, with some modification, the YRBS could be administered in non-school settings, such as out-of-school youth centers, emergency, or transitional housing on the same day as the school-based YRBS to provide a more accurate estimate of the number of youth experiencing homelessness.We encourage leaders throughout the United States to consider adding these housing questions to their surveys and encourage readers to contact us to discuss our work and the challenges that might be faced in pursuing this method.

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