Accurate Counting of Homeless Youth Necessary to Provide Successful Assistance
August 2, 2013 01:22 PM
On Tuesday, July 30, the Urban Institute hosted a forum on Counting Homeless Youth: Promising Practices from the Youth Count! Initiative in Washington, DC. The panel consisted of Michael Pergamit, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute; Mary Cunningham, Senior Research Associate at the Urban Institute; Megan Gibbard, Homeless Youth and Young Adult Project Manager at the King County Housing and Community Development; and Laura Green Zeilinger, Deputy Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The forum was moderated by Nan Roman, President of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“Knowing how many youth are homeless is a critical first step in helping them, but it's not easy to count an invisible population,” said Zeilinger. There exist a number of charities and government organizations that want to help homeless youth, but so far no one has figured out how to accurately count them. The study, conducted in December 2012 and January of this year in nine different locations around the country, attempted different methods aimed at improving their counts. The Urban Institute observed the work and drew out promising practices and lessons for improvement.
The nine sites that participated were Boston, MA; Cleveland, OH; Hennepin County, MN; Houston, TX; Los Angeles, CA; New York City, NY; Seattle, WA; Washington State; and Winston-Salem, NC.
“Homeless people in general are difficult to count,” said Roman. “They don’t always want to be counted and because they’re not living in places where it’s easy to count them.” Homeless youth prove to be even more elusive, in part because many do not see themselves as homeless but in a dire housing circumstance.
Gibbard explained that many homeless youth tend to blend into their communities through a variety of ways. Some still attend school, couch surf (moving from place to place), use social media, and even sell sex in exchange for a place to sleep. It is a survival strategy that makes them difficult to count. And that lack of numbers means programs and organizations that could help are instead left underfunded.
“Part of the difficulty is also that different counts use different age ranges and definitions of the word ‘homeless’,” said Zeilinger. “Common methods used for adult homeless counts don’t accurately capture survival strategies common to these youth. And many don’t want to be found, possibly fleeing from abuse or fear of being placed in foster care.”
The report released by Urban Institute did not look at whether local counts went up or were considered more accurate. “The purpose was to observe and review the various pilot site strategies and examine how their experiences might guide future efforts,” said Cunningham.
Some of the more promising practices were the creation of partnerships between otherwise unlikely organizations. “In King County, the public library system away from the table excited about helping other service organizations in this endeavor,” noted Gibbard. She also stressed that local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) programs be engaged, in part to help create an environment where LGBTQ youth feel welcome.
Other successes were reported in holding magnet events, involving local youth in the pretesting, advising, and outreach stages, and measuring housing instability as opposed to homelessness.
Pergamit commented on a few of the observations made regarding areas of improvement. “Street counts, in some cases, could be improved through expanded coverage by looking beyond known gathering places,” he said. A common survey should also be developed, using a standardized definition and short, simple questions. “School involvement is also critical,” he noted. They can play an important role in the counts and also to help conduct outreach for local programs.
The panel agreed that if improved strategies are taken to scale nationwide, future counts and studies can produce more accurate and useful data of the homeless youth population, including size and scope. Such information would be a step closer to preventing and ending homelessness.