The June 12, 2012 USICH Council meeting was a historic one – not only did it mark the second anniversary of Opening Doors, it also marked the unveiling of a framework for ending youth homelessness by 2020 and was the first time that a Council meeting was broadcast live. Presented to the Council by the Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families at HHS, Bryan Samuels, this framework is the first time that the Council has endorsed a strategic set of priorities established to help us to reach the goal by 2020.Three thought leaders on the issue were in attendance as expert panelists: CEO of Lighthouse Youth Services Bob Mecum, President and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness Nan Roman, and State Coordinator for the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth program at the Colorado Department of Education Dana Scott. All agreed that urgency on these strategic actions is vital to success. From both the presentation by Commissioner Samuels and from the expert panel in attendance a few things became clear:
- We need better, more comprehensive data as soon as possible. Secretaries and experts agreed that without utilizing all the sources of data communities collect on youth – through HMIS, Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs, and the education system—we are not able to clearly see all youth experiencing homelessness. There was a clear charge for communities to work collaboratively to include youth in their Point-in-Time counts and for HUD and HHS to work on merging RHYMIS and HMIS.
- Local communities are hubs of innovation, and where the real work begins. Local community collaborations, especially when homeless providers are engaged with the school systems and child welfare, are where the work to keep youth out of homelessness begins. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that looking towards innovations already happening on a local level is a good starting point: “Go where there is already skin in the game; with buy-in from local systems already in place, collaborative pilots will have a greater chance of success.”
- Focus on high-need youth and those with few protective factors. As noted in the framework, it is clear that there are some subpopulations of youth that are at a higher risk of prolonged homelessness. These groups include those transitioning out of juvenile justice and child welfare systems, pregnant/parenting teens, and LGBTQ youth. Key interventions for these groups should be research-based, collaborative, and adaptive to the specific needs of each individual youth.
During the discussion period between the Council and the Expert Panel, a few themes also emerged, which pointed to work on both the federal and the local level.
Engage schools as partners in intervention and in the continuum of care for youth
Youth experiencing homelessness are at a major disadvantage regarding academic outcomes, and have a much better chance of success if they stay connected to school, the panel and Council agreed. Dana Scott, a homeless education coordinator herself, responded by saying that it takes four to six months for youth to academically recover once they get reattached to school after having been homeless. Mobile youth often remain disconnected from school. Intervention and innovation should be targeted on keeping youth experiencing homelessness or those involved in the child welfare system fully engaged in school.
Keep youth connected
In her remarks, Nan Roman noted that based on their report, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that roughly 40,000 youth are considered chronically homeless. Although this subpopulation is most costly to the public sector, Roman drew the conversation toward focusing on high-need youth from a different lens, those that are chronically disconnectedfrom a myriad of social and educational supports rather than chronically homeless. She noted that “the housing piece is not the big piece for youth, it is family intervention,” to which the rest of the panel agreed. Bryan Samuels mentioned that youth shelters and drop-in centersare starting points to work with families, as most youth who spend a night in the shelter will go home with a family member the next day. He suggested that when the individual is back home with the family that it is critical to organize family interventions to reduce the odds that the youth will leave home again.
Engage with juvenile justice and child welfare systems
Deputy Director of USICH Jennifer Ho brought forth a question from online viewers, asking what a local coordinated system of care for youth experiencing homelessness would ideally look like. This turned the conversation toward other systems that engage with youth at high risk of experiencing homelessness, most notably the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system. It was posed that as youthleave or age out of the juvenile justice system or foster care, there may not be a comprehensive or supported plan of care or housing. Secretary Sebelius noted that the Federal Government does not have a comprehensive plan or overarching policy guidance on how best to do this on a community basis, calling on local community services to make those connections and let us know where the Federal Government can make policy changes to incentivize these collaborations. Bob Mecum echoed these thoughts and said community housing providers and homeless youth programs need to engage with the juvenile justice system and with the judges who operate within these systems. Bryan Samuels brought the conversation back to education, noting that the connection between juvenile justice and homelessness among youth has another component: education. Many youth who come out of the juvenile justice system are still eligible for school but are not reengaged, he noted.
Secretary Sebelius drew the conversation to a conclusion, summarizing future strategies that should be implemented. She noted that data collection and targeting and creating individual plans and assessments for those exiting the juvenile justice and child welfare system are critical. She said “children are not just small adults,” we need whole new ways of thinking about systems of care when moving toward ending youth homelessness. The Council agreed to move forward with the proposed youth framework.