The California Wellness Foundation and The California Homeless Youth Project discuss the need for data and what philanthropy can do about it.
“So, just how many homeless youth are there?”
Trying to find an answer to this question has long frustrated us and many of our colleagues working to improve the health and well-being of homeless and runaway youth. While contemporary data on transition-age youth in the foster care system is readily available, the best available data for homeless and runaway youth have been extrapolations of estimates that are decades-old, akin to a copy of a copy of a faded fax.
The absence of up-to-date, accurate information on homeless youth has hindered many of our partners in California in their efforts to explain why youth homelessness merits greater attention and more funding. The consequences of stale data are stark: while the federal government annually commits several billion dollars toward improving the lives of youth in foster care, it allocates a budgetary bread crumb (some $115 million) to assist homeless and runaway young people. California’s budget also woefully under-prioritizes homeless youth.
While robust data collection is essential for arguing for increased resources, we also need good data to inform our understanding of the circumstances behind youth homelessness and the types of services that can help vulnerable youth avoid a future of chronic adult homelessness.
HUD Point-in-Time Homeless Count
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) moved to fill this informational gap by introducing a category that focuses explicitly on youth in its Point-in-Time count of homeless populations. Henceforth, HUD's Point-in-Time homeless count will tally 18-24 year olds separately from the general adult and child (under 18) homeless populations.
However, counting homeless youth has been easier said than done. HUD's local homeless Continuums of Care, which are responsible for the Point-In-Time homeless counts, have struggled to figure out how, when and where to best reach youth. Homeless youth are not likely to hang out on skid row or adult homeless shelters. They often try to blend in with their housed peers to avoid drawing negative or judgmental attention to themselves and many strive as best as they can to maintain the appearance of a typical young person. Because homeless youth often are not going to "look" like someone who is stereotypically homeless, those whom the local Continuums of Care task with counting the homeless may overlook them. The result is not only an undercount, but more damagingly, a conclusion that ending youth homelessness should not be a priority.
Advancing Youth Inclusivity in California's Point-in-Time Homeless Counts
With these issues in mind, The California Wellness Foundation (TCWF) sought a way to support California's efforts to respond to HUD's new mandate on counting homeless youth. The California Homeless Youth Project (CHYP), a longstanding TCWF grantee, was already thinking about this, too.
In September 2013, TCWF awarded CHYP a multi-year grant to boost the capacity of Continuums of Care throughout California to more effectively count homeless youth. The result is a full-court press by CHYP and their partners at UC Berkeley. Their We Count, California! Initiative is supporting more youth-inclusive Point-in-Time counts across California through the following activities:
- Daylong regional trainings across the state of California for local Continuums of Care, youth-serving organizations and school district homeless liaisons to strengthen the inclusion of youth in their Point-in-Time counts.
- Facilitating collaborations between the local homeless counters and their youth-serving community partners and school district homeless liaisons through the regional training series.
- Small grants to dozens of Continuums of Care to support the implementation of more effective methods to count youth (such as targeting locations and times more likely to reach homeless youth or starting a youth advisory board).
- For communities with low-resources, one-on-one technical assistance leading up to the 2015 Point-in-Time count and funding to underwrite dedicated staff time and materials for youth-specific strategies (such as working with McKinney-Vento school liaisons to better integrate school-based data on homeless youth).
We welcome HUD’s increased focus on homeless youth. As HUD relies heavily on data to set policies and allocate funds, a robust youth component to its Point-in-Time count presents a prime opportunity to elevate action on youth homelessness. Moreover, the emerging data will help improve programmatic effectiveness, measure community progress, and build momentum.
In the absence of state or federal funding to implement this mandate, private funders can play a pivotal role in ensuring that local homeless counters step up their game for homeless youth. Now is the time for homeless youth to count on us.