America’s young people could have a safer, more secure, and much brighter tomorrow if philanthropy and government collaborated to invest in five key areas. (Part 1 of 2)
As long as there is family dysfunction, abuse, violence and poverty in the United States, young people will be kicked out of their homes, run away, be victimized, suffer without protection, become homeless and lack basic life necessities. However, it is possible to strengthen existing safety nets so that young people who find themselves alone and unprotected are brought into safety more quickly.
The vast majority of youth do not become homeless by choice. Many different factors contribute to youth homelessness, but studies suggest that the primary reasons are family dysfunction, sexual abuse, “aging out” of the foster care system, exiting the juvenile justice system, family rejection due to sexual orientation or gender identity and economic hardship.
If all of this sounds hopeless, don’t despair. There is good work being done and you can help! To ensure a safe and bright future for America’s young people, philanthropy and government should collaboratively invest in: 1) community-based services; 2) data and research; 3) federal and state policy advocacy; 4) youth voice; and 5) public education and engagement. This is part one of a two-part blog series and will focus on the investments community-based services and data and research need.
Invest in Community-Based Services
Philanthropy must adopt a systems approach and invest in a spectrum of services to ensure we do not leave any youth homeless and unsafe. Creating systems that work for our young people can prevent chronic homelessness, traumatic experiences, and disruption of normal developmental milestones, like completing high school. To achieve change, funders should invest in what works and make sure that services are connected so young people can get what they need as quickly as possible.
- Prevention: For young people who are thinking of running away or who believe they are likely to be ejected from their homes, crisis hotlines, family services, and programs that seek to prevent youth from becoming homeless are vital. These prevention services include family interventions, poverty-reduction, school-based support and services, and in-home and respite care.
- Crisis Intervention: Homeless youth need to be brought into safety as quickly as possible in order to prevent victimization, human trafficking, criminal justice involvement, deteriorating mental health and death. These services are designed to build relationships and trust with young people and include street based services, drop-in centers, crisis intervention programs (emergency shelters), school-based services, and health care.
- Longer-Term Solutions: For young people who cannot safely reunify with their family at all or within the length of stay permitted in crisis intervention programs (emergency shelter), youth-appropriate housing and services need to be accessible. The most common housing model is youth-specific transitional housing programs (often called Transitional Living Programs or Independent Living Programs). These programs have different models, dependent on what is available in the community. However, the services available to young people are similar across housing models. These programs utilize the positive youth development approach when providing case management, counselling, education supports, and connection to employment opportunities. For example, a young person can be in a transitional living program and live in either a group home, apartment (scattered-site) or with a family (host home) and receive all of the above mentioned services.
Invest in Data and Research
- A National Study: A national study has never been conducted to accurately estimate the number of runaway and homeless youth in America and document their characteristics and needs, even though in 2008 U.S. Congress authorized a study to be conducted. (No money has yet to be appropriated to conduct the study.) 2013 was the first year that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), with the support of several Funders Together members, endeavored to count homeless youth. Homeless youth are difficult to count because they often deliberately try to remain undetected. Every year, the U.S. Department of Education releases an annual report of the number of homeless children and youth enrolled in public schools. This is the one dependable national number we can rely on, but it only captures the unaccompanied homeless youth still attending school and who have been identified as homeless. Philanthropy can support more intensive research that gets to the root of identifying all unaccompanied homeless youth.
- Evaluate Existing Services for Homeless Youth: We know that having a safe bed for a young person to sleep in is better than sleeping on the street, in a laundromat, with a stranger, or in some other unsafe place. In 1974, a service continuum for runaway and homeless youth in America began to develop through the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA). Today, this continuum includes street based outreach and services, drop-in centers, crisis intervention programs (emergency shelters) for youth up to age 18 and young adults (18 to 24 years old), school-based services, drop-in centers, transitional housing, family interventions, and school-based services and interventions. However, this practice-informed knowledge base needs to be bolstered with cross-agency evaluations of these practices. Philanthropy can support evaluations of the existing structure so that the most effective services can be identified. This research would also serve as “evidence” for policy advocates who seek to increase effective resources for young people experiencing homelessness.
To start tackling the complex causes of youth homelessness, philanthropy can support community-based services and research. With these investments, the field can better understand the demographics and needs of our young people, and work to ensure a brighter future for each and every one of them.
Want to know how philanthropy can support advocacy, youth voice, and public education on youth homelessness? Check back here later this week for part two in this blog series.
Darla Bardine is the Executive Director of the National Network for Youth, the nation’s leading network of runaway and homeless youth programs. The Network champions the needs of runaway, homeless and other disconnected youth through strengthening the capacity of community-based services, facilitating resource sharing, collaborating to provide youth-appropriate interventions and educating the public and policymakers. NN4Y members work collaboratively to prevent youth homelessness and the inherent risks of living on the streets, which includes: victimization, exploitation, human trafficking, criminal justice involvement, lifetime homelessness, health deterioration or death. For more information, visit www.nn4youth.org.
The photo above shows a young person accessing services at YouthCare’s Orion Center in Seattle, WA.