5 ways to end youth homelessness

Recession woes, funding cuts and Congressional budget fights underscored a recurrent theme at the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference in Seattle last week: Doing More With Less.
Homeless youngster interns in construction work via YouthCare

Homeless youngster interns in construction work via YouthCare Photo by Tim Matsui for YouthCare


Homeless youngster learning computer technology at YouthCare

Homeless youngster learning computer technology at YouthCare Photo by Tim Matsui for YouthCare

'It’s 1:30 a.m., you’re 15 years old and you’ve been thrown out of the house because your stepdad didn’t like it when you stood up for your mom in a fight they were having. As he pushes you down the front stairs, he calls you a homo and tells you that as far as he’s concerned, you’re on your own now....'

'It’s 1:30 a.m., you’re 15 years old and you’ve been thrown out of the house because your stepdad didn’t like it when you stood up for your mom in a fight they were having. As he pushes you down the front stairs, he calls you a homo and tells you that as far as he’s concerned, you’re on your own now....' Courtesy of United Way of King County

We've all seen them. They sprawl in groups of three or four on the sidewalks outside Seattle's downtown businesses, maybe with a big dog curled beside them. Their multiple piercings, tattoos and shaven heads make them look savage, and layers of shapeless clothing make them appear bigger than they really are. Smoking, grunting at each other, refusing to meet our eyes (most of us look away anyhow), homeless youth seem determined to hold us at a sardonic distance even as their scrawled cardboard signs beg us for help.

When a young relative of mine was homeless for a year, I realized how much of this is a masquerade. In some ways it's similar to the grownup facades assumed by American adolescents anywhere, except there's more at stake on the streets. A homeless youngster looks tough to ward off exploitation and assault.

Understandably, building effective programs for these youth is very different from working with homeless adults and families. Besides shelter, teens and twentysomethings left on their own need programs that will patiently break through their fear and cynicism while drawing on their natural vigor and hunger for independence, and that will provide the tools necessary for achieving healthy self-sufficiency. "The great thing about these kids," says Melinda Giovengo, YouthCare executive director, "is if you build it, they will come."

Last week’s National Alliance to End Homelessness conference in Seattle featured dozens of successful programs across the U.S. The best give homeless youth a meaningful role in program planning. They build on the innate tendency of adolescents to bond with small groups that feel like surrogate families, and teach group members to encourage each other in behaviors that will lead to a better life. Successful programs also ensure that LGBT kids — who represent 20 to 40 percent of homeless youngsters, but just 4 to 10 percent of youth in general — feel welcome.

Estimating the number of homeless unaccompanied youth (12-17) and young adults (18-25) is difficult because they often hide their plight from adults who may be predatory or punitive. In King County, 4,000 to 5,000 young people are homeless at one time or another each year. The January 24, 2013, count of unaccompanied youngsters in the county who lacked shelter or were staying in emergency shelters, or who were about to lose their temporary lodgings, totaled 776. The Seattle Police Department has estimated that there are 500 to 2,000 homeless youth in Seattle on any given night.

How do we best deal with these kinds of numbers? Here are five ideas from the conference that seemed especially interesting, as well as thrifty.

1. Preventing youth homelessness and reuniting families: Kids are less likely to leave home in the first place if they get along with their parents. Cocoon House teaches parenting skills to adults wanting better relationships with their children ages 13 to 17. Coaching is done through confidential phone consultations, support groups and in-home family counseling. Outreach staff reconnect runaway children with their parents when it looks as if strategic help can improve family dynamics. Speedy staff footwork on the streets is critical because, as one conference-goer said, “Pimps and drug dealers do amazing outreach.”

Prevention and reconnection have the added benefit of reducing demands on more costly services. Of course, returning youth to abusive homes is never desirable, and reunions with families are almost never feasible for those who have aged out of foster care at 18. The latter group represents more than 10 percent of the homeless youth population and typically spends two to four years on the streets. See Crosscut's recent article about the personal and community effects of aging out of foster care.

2. Ensuring education and employment opportunities: YouthCare connects homeless kids with adults who teach them the academic and job skills needed for future self-sufficiency. Many youngsters in the program secure internships in real-world fields such as construction, food service and computer technology. All participating youth are paid for their time. Program costs are kept low through volunteer support and partnerships with businesses, private foundations, other nonprofits and faith communities.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Feb 27, 4:26 p.m. Inappropriate

There may be some 'homeless fatigue' up here in the Seattle metropolis. Not sure about conditions in the 1960's and 1970's, but the 1980's ushered in the glorification of street life for kids with movies and documentaries such as "Streetwise" and the one with Matt Dillon. The spiked hair crowd and the "gutterpunks" from New Orleans and other summer hot and humid places converged on Seattle streets. Then the 1990's grunge crowd found the Seattle streets as the drugs shifted from cocaine to heroin. Post 2000 street kids probably should be background checked to find out exactly where they come from and why they choose the lifestyle. Seattle and the whole area would benefit from not remaining an 'attractive nuisance' and drawing card that invites the nation's 'homeless youth'. Surprisingly, the numbers do not seem to be in relation to any of the decades of presidential terms and economic conditions.

animalal

Posted Wed, Feb 27, 11:58 p.m. Inappropriate

I know it's a shock and revelation but teens have been running away for thousands of years and yet civilization marches on. Some where down the road of life most of them get it and magically they turn into adults. There's no one size fits all cure or program for them and most of them find their way out by themselves.

Djinn

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 10:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Both animalal and djinn make great points but I think they are looking at a problem that a lot of smart people are working really hard on.

animalal: Homeless fatigue is an interesting statement, homelessness is an inefficency in a system, or waste, all of these wonderful young minds and able bodies are coming to Seattle and with these programs being turned into tax paying citizens. These program, if funded properly take a loss/waste and turn it into a gain for Seattle. If you didn't have these programs the effects of each group that you described would be far more negative.

Djinn: I love you historical perspective. You bring up the point that there is not a one size fits all, which is exactly what this article talks about. Homelessness affects/effects everyone, but there are groups that get disproportionally effected like minorities and LGBTQ community noted in the artle. By focusing on the most needy and vulnerable parts of the system, the greatest benefit can be had in the whole system. Finally, everyone needs help sometime and if you city can invest 100 bucks to have someones life turn around in a week rather have them do it themselves in a year, why wouldn't they do it?

These groups know that preventing homelessness is the best way decrease homelessness.

BouduB

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 10:49 a.m. Inappropriate

The hopeful idea that homeless kids of the present will be fine because things somehow worked out for homeless kids in the past ignores the world we live in. The low-level manufacturing jobs that once put millions of young people on the bottom rung of a career ladder are gone. Kids who don’t graduate from college can no longer qualify for the entry-level jobs that pay a living wage today. Housing is so expensive now in areas of employment opportunity that a minimum wage can’t cover the rent. Thus the homeless kids of the past have swelled the crowds of homeless adults of the present, many of whom “magically” became addicted to drugs or despair when younger. They haunt our streets like disheveled ghosts and overwhelm our costly emergency rooms, hospitals, police forces, and jails.

As for whether homelessness is freely chosen in the face of what life on the streets is like for them, and why the count of homeless youth keeps rising, see “Recession Drives Surge in Youth Runaways”’ (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/26/us/26runaway.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0), “For Runaways, Sex Buys Survival” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/27/us/27runaways.html?pagewanted=all), “After Recession, More Young Adults Are Living on Street” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/19/us/since-recession-more-young-americans-are-homeless.html?pagewanted=all), and “Homeless teens: A complex web ((http://issuu.com/elizabethgriffin/docs/cover_-_teen_homelessness)

Djinn is right that there’s no one-size solution for the problem of homeless youth, but in light of these realities, will “most of them find their way out by themselves?”

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 12:03 p.m. Inappropriate

I was touched by Judy's column on homeless youth. There were many times as a teen when I comtemplated "running away." But I was too afraid to take to the streets. I took the "easy way out," which was a mistake, I got married -- an unsuccessful venture. As Judy wrote, teens today have many reasons to take to the streets. Addressing those reasons and helping the teens develop the skills needed to get off the streets and succeed in life should be of primary importance to all of society. I don't believe, as Djinn wrote, that "most of them find their way out by themselves." I believe these young people need a compassionate, understanding and knowledgeable hand to help them "find their way." Thanks, Judy, for bringing this important issue to our attention.

njrogers

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

“An investment that helps homeless kids now will save more than 20 times the cost to society when they’re adults in the homeless or corrections systems.”

Much as I admire JL I have to flinch when I read that sentence. Nearly any social program can be justified (taxpayer funded health care, guaranteed annual wage, psychiatric counseling, free clothing, food and publicly reimbursed friendship) when compared to the truly unbelievable costs of our criminal justice system. Sentiments like this recognize no boundaries and contribute nothing to policy discussion. Sometimes it's best to just describe the problem.

kieth

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 7:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Maybe there are so many programs for kids on the streets, so they come more willingly, and stay too long.

Posted Fri, Mar 1, 10:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Kieth, thank you for helping me make my point. Steering adults toward changing their lives with the "carrot" of employment training and education backed up by the "stick" of the criminal justice system is hugely expensive. Young people, more malleable and more inherently driven toward leaving childhood behind to become independent adults, are much easier to motivate and teach to fulfill their potential, and in the process are far less likely to land in jail.

Common1sense, reading a couple of the stories whose URLs are linked to my comment above will help you see why very few youth would *choose* a life on the streets.

To the question raised about programs for homeless youth: The ones I know best in Seattle (Friends of Youth; YouthCare; ROOTS - check them out online!) follow "best practices" in having the clear, explicit goals of making sure kids are safe, warm, and fed, but also ensuring that they "don't get too comfortable," as YouthCare's Giovengo has said. Maturing adolescents who live in happy, secure homes sometimes need to be kicked out of the nest, just as youth in homeless programs do. In either case they must first be equipped with the work skills and education they need to make it on their own out in the world (and not have to move back in with their parents or mentors!).

Posted Fri, Mar 1, 11:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Email from Deborah Edison at YouthCare:

Our entire continuum for care is about moving young people forward and making them independent. See the OUR APPROACH section of our website: http://www.youthcare.org/our-approach.

For over-18 programs, young people pay rent (30% of income – they need to build rental histories). For young people who are having a hard time finding a job or who are not in college, they must have a certain number of hours of what we call productive time – applying for jobs, going on interviews, volunteering, etc. – every week.

Deborah Edison
Director of Marketing and Development
YouthCare

Posted Sat, Mar 2, 6:13 a.m. Inappropriate

What seems to be missing in this convo is the huge gap between those needing basic, emergency services and our capacity to provide them. Even though a majority of those we serve at the ROOTS shelter are Washington state natives (animalal was right 20 years ago, but nolonger), we are only serving a fraction of those needing shelter. Sorry, 80 beds in the whole of King County does just not keep up with the estimated 500 to 2,000 not housed 18-25 year olds. In fact, according to Seattle's HMIS data, homeless young folk are five times more likely to be outside or other places unfit for human habitation than the older homeless folk.
Glad folks are talking about this, I'm tired of seeing bright, talented young people give up on themselves in an economy that has squeezed them out of the job market.

Posted Sat, Mar 2, 12:20 p.m. Inappropriate

I never know what to say when I see a story about programs that provide a wide range of services, and the gap between the number of people served, and the need for services.

To me, it makes more sense to spend $1 million helping hundreds or thousands of people who otherwise wouldn't make it, and need a little temporary help now, vs giving everything to 50 or so people.

In other words, instead of providing full room, board, training, clothes, couseling, medical care and transportation to a few dozen people, how about setting up a hostel-style housing situation that is almost, if not entirely, self-sustaining.

I remember the youth hostels from my traveling days. They were self-sustaining, with one adult in charge, and basic pay-as-you-go services.

Construct a building in a part of town that is more low-cost, but on a bus-line to employment centers, and put six bunk-beds in a room. Make the kids do an hour of work a day, and charge very low rent, maybe $50 to $100 a month. They can have a locker. They can pay to use the stove to cook their meals, or they can contribute to a low-cost but nutritious dinner.

This won't take care of all the kids. There are some pretty screwed up kids on the streets. But it will take care of a lot more than are being taken care of now, and it will be kids who would otherwise stand a chance of making it.

There are a lot of logistic and legal details that can be worked out once our current attitude of ignoring the kids that are falling to focus on a handful of already-ruined kids is re-examined.

A lot of young people can afford $150 a month for rent and pay showers and laundromat, they just can't afford the $500 it takes to get into a shared housing situation, or the $700 it takes to get into a cheap apartment.

This seems like it would do the most good for the most people for the least amount of money.

Posted Sun, Mar 3, 1:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Email from Patty Fleischmann, President of StolenYouth ("supporting the rescue & recovery of prostituted children"):

The comments [on the youth homelessness article] were a little frustrating. As if these kids have a "choice." You, Deborah Edison and some other readers navigated it respectfully and poignantly.

For the commercially sexually exploited youth that we are supporting, 90% or higher have been sexually abused at home. They then take to the streets and often within 48 hours are picked up by pimps/predators. No choice there.

Parent Map did an interesting article this month on the csec problem in our city.
http://www.parentmap.com/article/parentmap-march-2013-issue

Patty Fleischmann
President - StolenYouth [at StolenYouth.org]

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 4:16 p.m. Inappropriate

John Mifsud, Executive Director of Next Step Housing, wrote:

Judy,

I just finished reading your article on ending youth homelessness, in Crosscut. I applaud your efforts.

In Seattle upwards of 40% of our homeless youth are Gay, Lesbian, Bi or Trans. I am sure Seattle is no exception to other major cities across the country. This is one of the major reasons kids are not getting along with their parents. However, at times, the parents throw the kids out of their homes because they do not understand or want to understand their children's natural inclinations.

Although I can see the benefits of tough love in certain circumstances, sexual orientation is not a choice or an addiction.

If I could add one important item to your list, it would be to educate parents of their responsibility to love their children regardless.

Gratefully,

John Mifsud
Executive Director
nextstephousing.com

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