New initiatives take on youth homelessness. Will they help?

You hear a variety of reasons why so many young people today are living on the streets, in a car, on someone’s couch or in youth shelters. And it can be a challenging population to help as the number of homeless youth continues to increase in many parts of the world. In fact, one report out of Europe suggests youth homelessness has increased 75% in Copenhagen since 2009. In the U.S., reports have San Diego’s homeless youth population up 39% in the past year and, after a concerted effort to count homeless youth, Seattle-King County saw numbers jump 700% in a year. At the same time, we’re seeing many new initiatives to turn the tide. Will they work? As always, we welcome your comments at the bottom of the story. – Philip Bane


The root of youth homelessness in all European countries, The Guardian suggests, is that “young people are more vulnerable to prohibitive housing costs, overcrowding and severe housing deprivation than the rest of the population.” In Denmark, for example, 78% of poor young people spend more than 40% of their disposable income on housing.

Such big increases in the number of homeless youth in U.S. cites – such as those seen in Seattle and San Diego -- may be attributable in part to communities getting better data, Naomi Smoot, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, told Huffington Post. But there’s no single reason for the rise, she suggests.

“It’s the drug crisis, it’s the economy, it’s the cost of housing, jobs being scarce,” Smoot says. “As a result, growing numbers of young people are having to take care of themselves on the street at a very young age.”

Gerald Piro, executive director of Covenant House in Detroit, tells the Michigan Chronicle that the problem of kids living on the streets is growing because it’s increasingly difficult to get a read on the scope of the problem. “A lot of homeless youth start out by aging out of foster care, and once they age out of foster care if there is no real plan, they make their own plan,” Piro says. “Then you have in the city of Detroit a number of people who have lost their homes and the families break apart with the hope that they are going to get back together again, but that becomes very difficult to do.”

Covenant House has been helping homeless, at-risk and trafficked young people since 1972 and today operates in 30 cities in six countries.

Efforts to turn the tide
Just as there is no one reason why so many young people don’t have stable housing, there is no one fix, Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco, told the Post.

That’s clear from the many new initiatives under way.

Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $33 million to 10 communities for demonstration projects to support a wide range of housing programs including rapid re-housing, permanent supportive housing, transitional housing, and host homes. HUD’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project – designed to reduce youth homelessness -- was developed with recommendations from young people who had experienced homelessness themselves.

Cincinnati and Hamilton County make up one of the communities to receive a HUD award. WCPO reports that one advocate working with Cincinnati nonprofits to come up with new and innovative ways to end youth homelessness is Shawn Ingle, once a homeless teen himself.

“I really don’t want any other homeless youth to be in my shoes,” Ingle said. “To be sleeping under a bridge or begging for food.”

In Australia, the Queensland government is using Social Benefit Bonds (SBB) – or impact investing – to tackle youth homelessness, working with the Churches of Christ.

“The Youth CONNECT SBB represents a key milestone for the Palaszczuk Government and our innovative policy response to complex social issues, in particular the Youth CONNECT SBB will provide new hope for some of our most vulnerable Queenslanders,” said Curtis Pitt, the Queensland Treasurer.

Pitt said 2011 Census data indicated 60% of homeless people in Australia are aged under 35 years.

“Clearly young Australians are over-represented compared to their proportion of the total population, and it is important that the Queensland Government supports the Churches of Christ in Queensland who will deliver the Youth CONNECT program to support young people 15 to 25 years old who are exiting or have exited statutory care and are homeless or are at risk of homelessness,” Pitt added.

By the end of the year Churches of Christ will offer wrap-around services in South East Queensland and Townsville.

The aim, said David Swain of the Churches of Christ, is “to build young people’s resilience factors of education, employment and community connection and to influence the individual’s future trajectory towards achieving sustained housing.”

Public and private entities stepping up
Efforts to reduce youth homelessness are coming from a variety of sources. Here are some recent developments:

  • Boston Public Schools will have homelessness liaisons. With $1.2 million from the city’s fiscal 2018 budget, BPS will have a trained youth homelessness point person in every school in its system. The “hub-and-spoke” model is meant to help the estimated 3,000 or more students in the district who are homeless. “Every school will have a liaison; the liaison will serve as the person who collects all the resources, knows where all the resources are and can be a liaison between community partners and our students and their families,” BPS Superintendent Chang told reporters. “This is work that's to support both the young person and their families.”
  • Multi-agency pilot to keep at-risk youth in Toronto off the streets expands. The Housing Outreach Program-Collaboration (HOP-C) involves a team of mental health professionals and peer support workers helping young people transition out of homelessness. Under the leadership of Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) researcher Dr. Sean Kidd, HOP-C has reportedly led to improvements in housing, education and employment for many of the youth who took part. It has also catalyzed close partnerships between several organizations. Now, with a grant of $976,900 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation's Local Poverty Reduction Fund, the HOP-C initiative is the subject of a formal clinical trial in Toronto and a scaling initiative in Thunder Bay. In Thunder Bay, the program will be adapted to make it culturally relevant to Indigenous youth transitioning out of homelessness.
  • D.C.’s Friendship Place partners with Amazon. The companywill match donations made to the homeless advocacy agency through the end of the year and up to $1 million – the largest private donation Friendship Place has ever received, said President and CEO Jean Michel Giraud. The money will go toward critical emergency services and programs aimed at finding stable housing and jobs for families experiencing homelessness in Washington, D.C., according to MetroWeekly. Giraud said it will benefit families who have biological ties and “families of choice,” which include members of the LGBTQ community and homeless LGBTQ youth, the latter a population Friendship Place has focused on helping in recent years. A recent article in the Washingtonian discusses challenges faced by homeless LGBTQ youth in D.C., who make up almost half of all homeless youth there.
  • J-PAL North America partners with Baltimore on evidence-based services. The MIT research center is partnering with the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Human Services to test innovative approaches to reduce homelessness among unaccompanied youth. Mayor Catherine Pugh said the city is thrilled to work with the J-PAL State and Local Innovation Initiative.  “This opportunity to work with top experts and researchers will put Baltimore at the forefront of national efforts to develop evidence-based services and interventions for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness,” she said. Together the city and J-PAL will develop an evaluation of housing and supportive services for homeless youth, with the goal of reducing the length of time youth are homeless and helping them achieve long-term stability and independence.

More on this topic:
Foundation uses special website to engage young, homeless sofa hoppers
Texas pilot uses technology to improve outcomes for foster kids (and it's working!)
Studies reveal more disturbing details on youth homelessness

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This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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