08/01/2013 - How Do We End Youth Homelessness?

A Message to CoCs and Ten-Year Plan Leaders
From USICH Executive Director, Barbara Poppe

Recently, I wrote about the urgency to increase our efforts to end chronic and family homelessness, suggesting key questions Continuums of Care and Ten Year Plan leaders should ask. Today I want to pose similar questions related to how we address youth homelessness. To reach our goal of ending youth homelessness by the year 2020, we must realign our programs and systems now.
As part of the development of Opening Doors, USICH sponsored a working group on youth homelessness (age 12-24) to develop strategies that would advance our goal to end youth homelessness.  One member of the group was Sharayna, a young woman with direct experience of youth homelessness. She said,

“In all of my time suffering abuse and living on the streets, I felt like there wasn’t a single adult who cared about me.  After being able to join advocacy groups and having opportunities to share my experiences and ideas about homelessness with government officials, I have felt literally overwhelmed.  I now see that a whole mass of adults in my community and my government are working to help youth like me, and that there are adults who really care.”

We also heard from advocates at the national, state, and local level who described youth living unsheltered due to lack of crisis bed capacity, youth trading sex for shelter in order to survive, the long term impact of trauma due to homelessness, sexual and physical abuse, and being kicked out by parents who rejected them for coming out. Other youth became homeless following discharge from juvenile and adult justice systems and foster care. At the time, the extent of tragedy overwhelmed me as a parent of a then 15-year old son and 22-year old daughter – as a mother I knew how vulnerable youth in that age range were and could not imagine my children trying to survive on the streets.

I also realized that in my prior work at the Community Shelter Board which operated Columbus’ Continuum of Care, we had not fully considered the needs of youth and young adults nor had we designed a system of care that was responsive to their unique developmental needs.  At USICH, I vowed to make amends for that lack of attention to youth and set out to create a better path to end youth homelessness.  Last summer, we amended Opening Doors to provide a federal framework to address youth homelessness. Just this week, the Urban Institute published a process evaluation of Youth Count!, an interagency initiative to learn how to better count youth during HUD’s annual point in time count.  One of the key observations was the importance of developing broad collaborations with some perhaps unconventional partners (like public libraries) in order to find homeless youth.  Solutions for ending youth homelessness may also require this kind of collaboration.

With all of that in mind, here are the top ten questions CoC and Ten Year Plan leaders should consider about how to improve your community’s response to youth homelessness:

1. Has your community collaboratively created a youth informed system of care that has developmentally appropriate crisis and transitional services for youth? Is the system aligned around the targeted outcomes for its youth services with the four core outcomes of the Federal framework and does it utilize interventions that address needs and draw on assets?

2. Has your community established a coordinated assessment system that first connects youth to community resources or positive family connections to avoid the need for shelter admission?  Does the coordinated assessment system provide prompt admission to shelter if youth would otherwise be unsheltered, and does it prioritize the most vulnerable youth rather than provide admission on a first come first serve basis?

3. In the funding competition, do you rank grantees on how well they serve all youth and young adults (prioritize inclusive, low barrier programs over programs that restrict admission to certain family types, e.g. only serve families without teenager; prioritize programs that provide youth specific services/residential components)? Do you rank grantees based on how well they serve the most vulnerable and high need youth and achieve the best results with greatest efficiency of resources?

4. As a condition of receiving CoC funding, do you require homeless youth programs to ensure that youth are connected to school and other educational opportunities?  Do you require them to provide clear evidence of intentional, routine partnerships with juvenile justice, or foster care?

5. As a condition of receiving CoC funding, do you require youth permanent supportive housing providers to prioritize admission to those youth with the greatest needs - not only a disabled head of household but other indicators such as repeated use of behavioral health crisis services, child welfare or justice involvement, or a history of episodic homelessness?

6. Does the CoC encourage homeless youth programs to have a systems (rather than program) orientation? Can these organizations point to specific examples of system-level activities (shared outcomes, coordinated assessment, youth-centric organization of services, etc.)?

7. Have you reviewed the system and programs from the perspective of youth to determine if they are youth-centered, streamlined, and minimize time spent homeless? Are domestic violence assessments and trauma informed care practices occurring across all programs? Are all programs LGBTQ-inclusive and competent?  Do you regularly review system and program cultural and linguistic competency?

8. Has the community examined its data and can you point to specific contributions, beyond mandatory activities like the PIT, where your use of data has contributed to understanding the need, characteristics, and/or prevalence of homelessness among youth? Moreover, is the data seen as a driver of decision-making and planning efforts to address youth homelessness? Are you using the data on costs and outcomes from different interventions to determine how to assist more youth and reduce the amount of time they spend without housing?  Based on that analysis, do you have a plan to motivate high performing agencies?

9. Have all possible mainstream resources been explored and fully leveraged for both housing and services? Has the public housing agency been engaged to provide FUP vouchers or other housing assistance?  (see HUD guidance for PHAs)  Are the public child welfare system and juvenile justice systems working with the CoC to prevent discharge of youth to homelessness? Are you connected with your State or local TANF agency, and are you using TANF resources to rapidly re-house youth headed families and connect these families to services, including employment? (see the HHS information memorandum) Are you involving school district liaisons, domestic violence providers, child welfare workers, state and local education agencies, and other mainstream agencies that work with low-income families and provide supportive services?

10. Are you bringing all of your community's homeless providers that receive targeted homeless assistance funds to the table, such as those organizations receiving Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs, Emergency Solutions Grants, Supportive Services for Veterans Families, Health Care for the Homeless grants, FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program, McKinney-Vento funds to Local Education Agencies for liaisons for children and youth experiencing homelessness, Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness grants, and Continuum of Care resources?

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