Voices of Youth Count (VoYC) is a national initiative led by Chapin Hall that aims to understand youth homelessness in terms of its scope, scale, and diversity of experiences. The project makes use of a robust set of data collection efforts, including a national phone survey of more than 26,000 households about occurrences of youth homelessness, 150 follow-up interviews with individuals indicating occurrences of youth homelessness, and 215 in-depth interviews with youth who had experienced homelessness. Additional details about the project and methods can be found here.

On November 15th, Chapin Hall released a set of initial findings in the report, Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in AmericaDetails about key initial findings have been published in a full-length brief, a one-page summary, and a peer reviewed article.

The big takeaways are that…

Youth Homelessness is Broad and Hidden: Approximately 1 in 30 youth (ages 13 to 17)  and 1 in 10 young adults (ages 18 to 25) experience homelessness in a year. And, many young people remain outside of traditional approaches to counts or estimates because they rely on couch surfing and other forms of doubling-up.

Youth Homelessness Experiences are Diverse: Some youth experience single episodes of homelessness while others have episodic experiences. Youth are likely to make use of a range of shelter strategies, including street, emergency shelter, and couch surfing options. And, like with adult homelessness, substance use and mental health challenges further complicate the homeless experience.

Capture2Prevention and Early Intervention are Essential: About half of the youth surveyed had experienced homelessness for the first time that year, often associated with chronic housing instability, family conflict or trauma, and upstream system involvement.

Homelessness Affects Rural and Urban Youth Similarly: The percent of youth reporting any homelessness in rural and urban counties was similar, 9.2% and 9.6%, respectively. However, the visibility and experience of youth homelessness in rural counties can differ due to being spread across larger areas and a lack of services.

Some Youth Experience a Greater Risk of Homelessness: Compared to their peers, the following groups had particularly elevated risks of homelessness – youth with less than a high school education (346% higher risk), unmarried parenting youth (200% higher risk), youth with an annual household income of less than $24,000 (162% higher risk), LGBTQ youth (120% higher risk), Black/African American youth (83% higher risk), and Hispanic youth (33% higher risk).

Implications for Social Work

The VoYC data provide homeless service providers, researchers, and policy advocates with a new and powerful tool for communicating prevalence rates and service needs. National estimates confirm what those of us in the field already knew and support the legitimacy of the work we do. These initial findings also have some important implications for social work as we continue our work towards meeting the Grand Challenge to End Homelessness.

First, in terms of preventing homelessness, we are likely missing a lot of opportunities to intervene through upstream systems that commonly employ social workers, such as schools, foster care and group homes, juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, family and child protective services, etc. While the initial VoYC findings do not illustrate causal relationships or pathways to homelessness, they do suggest opportunities for prevention and early intervention. One approach may be to further explore the use of Critical Time Intervention to prevent homelessness among youth transitioning out of foster care or institutional settings. Strengthening partnerships between schools and the homeless service system may also help prevent and end episodes of homelessness as well as increase retention and success in school.

Second, we need to take seriously the implications of multi-system involvement for youth. Improving outcomes across systems (e.g., high school graduation rates, arrest and recidivism rates) will likely have positive effects on homelessness risk. At the same time, there are always opportunities for systems to better collaborate. Social workers can play a key role in relationship building across systems and across sectors, such as through convening interagency councils and advocating for policy solutions that address root causes rather than symptoms. For example, social workers can help prevent the criminalization of homelessness.Capture3

Third, communities would benefit from institutionalizing comprehensive needs assessments and responses to youth homelessness that are flexible and adaptable to meet the diverse and developmental needs of youth. While it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, we also need a better understanding of what works and for whom. Social workers can help design, test, and evaluate strategies, such as robust outreach efforts, mobile services, cross-system collaboration, customized supportive and transitional housing options, and unique engagement approaches that make use of social networks and other technology to reach youth not accessing traditional services.

Fourth, targeted efforts are needed to effectively reduce the disparities in homelessness across groups of young people. Effective practices may include using screening and assessment procedures across systems and settings to increase service engagement. The VoYC findings confirm what we already knew about the high risk of homelessness for LGBT youth and youth of color. The even higher risk among under-educated youth and parenting youth presents broad cross-sector implications. Further, we know that extreme risk exists where these experiences intersect. Providers may want to examine program and service use data to assess opportunities to better engage high risk groups and improve service capacity through trainings that address topics such as racial justice, gender-responsive services, and eliminating service barriers for transgender youth.

Finally, the rural county findings challenge previous assumptions that youth homelessness in rural communities, while already understood to be more hidden, is less prevalent than in urban communities. While the risk of homelessness for youth in rural counties is comparable to that of youth in urban communities, the geographic and infrastructure differences between rural and urban communities warrants tailoring prevention and intervention strategies. Future work delving into rural homeless service provision is also warranted. We know less about the rural youth homelessness experience and therefore have some work to do in this area to develop and further refine responses. For example, the lack of robust services may produce more geographic mobility out of and through rural areas, which can challenge traditional engagement strategies and necessitate system-level change. However, services for homeless youth are limited and hard to navigate even in small cities, so it remains to be seen how best to strengthen systems across communities.

The Missed Opportunities report is the first in a series of reports to be generated by VoYC. In terms of deeper-dive questions, it will be interesting to see the following explored to support the design of effective prevention and intervention approaches:

  1. What is the rate of trauma and other adverse experiences among youth experiencing homelessness? And, how does trauma correlate with health outcomes and risk behaviors?
  2. What kinds of risk behaviors are prevalent among homeless youth (e.g., intravenous drug use, high risk sex practices, violence), and do these risks affect youth equally?
  3. What percent of youth are victims of drug, labor, or sex trafficking?
  4. How common is geographic mobility (e.g., intercity moves) while homeless, and how does this differ across communities?
  5. What are common pathways to homelessness for youth? Where would prevention efforts be best targeted?
  6. To what extent are homeless youth engaged in mainstream and homeless-specific services?
  7. What strengths, capabilities, and resiliencies can we draw on when working with youth and engaging them in peer support and leadership positions?
  8. How connected are youth to positive sources of social support and social networks?

For more on Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America, check out the following resources:

Blog Post Author: Amanda Aykanian, MA, Research and Project Lead, National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services

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