Who qualifies as a “Homeless Youth or Young Adult (YYA)?” Is it only young people who, night in and night out, sleep on the street? What about kids who couch surf? Or who get kicked out for one night after a fight with their parents? And where do we find these young people? On the U District’s Ave.? At the YMCA? In shelters?
The truth is, homeless and unstably housed youth are hard to find; often, they don’t want to be found. So how do you quantify — and serve — such an elusive demographic?
King County has been conducting its annual Count Us In survey since 2011 in an effort to do exactly that, steadily gathering information on the number and status of local 12-25 year olds with no stable home. The Count Us In event — and it really is an event — takes place on one evening in January thanks to an impressive coordination of county resources and staff: libraries, service agencies, health clinics, churches, shelters, parks, community centers and other non-traditional settings, in some 70 locations, from Auburn to Mercer Island to Shoreline, all participate. (The annual count is part of the Comprehensive Plan to Prevent and End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness in King County by 2020.)
At each counting station volunteers offer some kind of incentive to encourage the target audience to stop by and take the survey: pizza, video games, bus tokens, socks, gloves, deodorant, toothpaste. Whatever it takes.
My Count Us In afternoon starts in Auburn at the Auburn Youth Resources (AYR). AYR is a collection of old buildings — an old motel, some A-frame sheds converted to offices and two old houses, one for younger kids and one a drop-in center for teens and young adults. Young people trickle in. Some in couples, most alone. Peanut butter sandwiches are the draw here. The staff hands them out along with the surveys. In the hour I spent at AYR, about a dozen kids come by, eat sandwiches, fill out surveys and leave.
Count Us In is different than the nationwide One Night Count, which happened Thursday night. Part of the federally funded Point-in-time survey, Night Count is an effort to assess the county's entire homeless ppoulation. Last night, some 1,000 volunteers took to the streets between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. to physically count each homeless individual in King County, wherever they may be, in shelters, tents, parks, cars, etc. The Night Count survey method targets, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calls it, the “literally homeless,” meaning people with no roof over their heads.
Count Us In, on the other hand, has a different strategy and a broader focus. “A lot of youth are not technically homeless,” explains Megan Gibbard of King County’s Youth and Young Adult Initiative, “but [they] have housing questions.”
The Count Us In survey, for example, never asks “Are you homeless?” Instead, it asks such questions as:
- “Where did you stay last night?”
- “Where did you live in the last 3 months?”
- “Do you have a place where you can sleep at night on a regular basis?”
- “Has there been a time in the past when you didn’t know where you would be sleeping at night?”
The questions are multiple choice; all kids have to do is check boxes.
Their answers paint a picture of the issues YYAs can face when it comes to finding a stable place to live. Gibbard remembers one young boy who was staying with his grandmother. Sounds pretty stable, but his grandmother never gave him a key to the house or a space to put his clothes.
My second next stop is the Burien Library, unique in that it doesn't kick kids out for sleeping there. “What’s the difference between homeless kids taking a nap and someone nodding off while reading?” says Melissa, the library's manager. Every Thursday, the library hosts a game night for YYAs. It wasn't designed specifically for young people with housing problems, but many of those who come don’t know where they’ll go when game night ends. On this particular afternoon, one teenager is playing Guitar Hero on the library's massive screen.
Count Us In started in King County and has become “a national model,” says Gibbard. “We’re beginning to see it grow in other places as well.” The key to its success is the collaboration with institutions like the library in Burien or shelters like YouthCare’s James W Ray Orion Center in downtown Seattle and ROOTS in the U District. All are easy places to find YYAs and collect data.
Expanding into libraries and community centers is essential, because surveys filled out out in those locales can capture young people who may struggle with housing, but don't seek resources or support so much as a temporary refuge from some trouble on the street or their current living situation. The King County Library System, says Gibbard, reached out to the Committee to End Homelessness first. Now the Committee partners with both King County and Seattle libraries all over the region.
The 2014 Count Us In found 779 youth either homeless or in unstable housing. The 2013 number was an astonishingly similar 778. "The community needs to understand this issue," says Gibbard. "And it's important for them to know that the number is manageable."
The consistency of the two numbers would suggest that the survey is right on the money. More likely, it's a pretty impressive coincidence. Everyone involved acknowledges that the survey system could be improved. For Gibbard, the biggest challenge is outreach. For now, the county relies mostly on posters and word of mouth. Both, she says, are effective ways of communicating within the YYA community. Still, there are surely many who don’t know about the survey.
The Mockingbird Society is one of the many local nonprofits that participates in Count Us In. This year, the origanization sent out four of its youth advocates: Trai, Lamar, Sierra and Clay. They spent their evening doing what Erin Hatheway, Mockingbird’s Public Policy and Communications Coordinator, calls a “meta-survey”; that is, taking a survey of the survey. Mockingbird's hunch is that the 779 number from 2014 is too low. Lamar speculates that the actual number is probably closer to 2,000. To try to test that theory, Mockingbird team members are conducting a companion survey in two locations: the Burien library and Ballard.