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Members of the YouthCount 2.0! Data Collection Team

Young people are often missed in traditional point in time counts that rely on visual identification, because they don’t want to appear homeless and are less visible on the streets. In addition, they often double-up with friends, rather than seeking services at shelters where they would be easy to identify and count. Sarah Narendorf, Assistant Professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, led a project team that included Diane Santa Maria at the University of Texas School of Nursing and Yoonsook Ha from Boston University to find, count, and survey homeless youth, ages 13-24, in Harris County, Texas in November 2014. YouthCount 2.0! was a response to calls from the Houston community to pilot new methods for finding homeless youth and to learn more about their service needs.  The project was funded by the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Fund to End Homelessness.

YouthCount 2.0! used several new strategies to find and count homeless youth:

  1. An extended count period of 4 weeks.
  2. Respondent-driven sampling, asking youth to recruit others they knew in similar situations.
  3. Surveying at shelters, through street outreach, and at magnet events – at events designed for homeless youth and those that were not specific to homeless youth but where youth in unstable housing might be identified.
  4. Use of social work and nursing students to assist in surveying.
  5. Involvement of homeless and formerly homeless youth to help with locating and identifying youth.
  6. Expanded eligibility criteria beyond that used for adults by HUD – youth were counted if they were staying with friends or family, but not sure where they would stay in 30 days.
  7. Use of homeless management information system (HMIS) data to identify service locations we should visit to conduct the survey.
  8. Partnerships with service providers and collaboration with a community advisory board to guide the data collection and interpretation of results.

During the 4-week count period, the study team visited 47 different locations including shelters, magnet events, and street outreach locations. A total of 74 volunteers assisted with the count, 60 were social work students who received extra-credit in their research class. The project surveyed 420 youth directly and added another 212 youth to the count number through reviewing HMIS data.  Detailed data about the youth was obtained through a self-administered survey with over 100 questions that took 15-20 minutes to complete.

Through the two counts, there were successes and challenges that can help others looking to better count homeless youth.

Successes included:

  • Use of social work students. The students learned a lot about the situations of homeless youth and were exposed to service agencies and communities of which they hadn’t been aware.
  • The extended count period and expanded eligibility that enabled us to find out about youth that would not have been included in previous counts.
  • One Voice Texas, an advocacy organization, was part of the community advisory board, which enabled a smooth connection for results to be used in legislative session. YouthCount 2.0! data on homeless youth were noticed by legislators in relation to two different bills that passed into law.

Challenges included:

  • Respondent-driven sampling did not yield many new participants. It appears that the logistics were prohibitive. Asking youth that are focused on survival to remember to recruit friends to a study just didn’t work well unless it could be very immediate.
  • Some youth populations were clearly missed. The survey was available in Spanish, but none of the youth identified preferred to take the survey in Spanish. It was also difficult to connect with youth that were identified by schools. Events immediately after school nearby failed to attract many of those identified within the schools in spite of close collaborations with homeless liaisons to encourage participation.

For more information on YouthCount 2.o! visit the project website, which also includes a full report of the findings. The study team is currently writing-up the study and results for submission to a peer-reviewed journal and talking about next steps for YouthCount 3.0!

Blog Post Author: Sarah Narendorf, Assistant Professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work

Like this post?
Check out this one on how the University of Houston is addressing LGBTQ youth homelessness.

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