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What Does Your “Perfect Life” Look Like?

I am fortunate to be a co-Investigator on the Homeless Risk and Resiliency Survey, which is a multi-city assessment of the behaviors and experiences of homeless and unstably housed youth. This past summer myself and my team collected qualitative interviews with a subset of the youth participants in Los Angeles. One of the questions we asked seemed overtly simple for a research question. We asked everyone: “If you woke up tomorrow and your life was exactly the way you wanted it to be, what would it look like?” The answers we got were endearing, funny, honest, and inspiring. Some really pulled on the heartstrings, but as a whole, the answers provided an honest picture of the hopes and dreams of youth experiencing homelessness or housing instability.

In writing this piece, I asked myself the same question. If I woke up tomorrow and my life was exactly the way I wanted it, I would be living on the West Coast in my own home, I would be surrounded, supported, challenged and inspired by family and friends, I would be working towards a career that makes me happy and gives me purpose, and myself and the one’s I love would be healthy. Over the course of my life, I’ve been asked and have answered this question many times. Each time, my answer changes. The more times I articulate my answer to this question, the closer my answer gets to my reality. With each contemplation, I get a new opportunity to reflect on my core values and identify what are the most important things I want in my life. Homeless and unstably housed youth deserve these opportunities as well. I feel that sometimes as service providers and researchers we can get caught up in the minutia. So keep asking the simple questions and ask them over and over again.

Below is my favorite quote from the interviews:

“I would be in a queen size bed firm but soft, my bills would be paid off, my storage unit that I have would be paid off for like five years, I would have my associates degree and would be working on my masters no bachelors in law or criminal justice anything crime wise, um yeah that’s pretty much it. And I would still be advocating for the underdogs somehow. But all that if I just woke up tomorrow and all that happened it would feel great but it would be hollow. ‘Cause no effort was put into filling it up and making it solid. I wished it but the outer shell is there. The process is that makes it sweeter. I want to fill it up that shell with the blood sweat and tears of me getting there. It would be lovely if that just happened and kind of I wished it did. I would get over the hollow feeling but pretty much yes. I have to work for it because I feel like it will be snatched away if I don’t.”

Scroll down to see more quotes from the youth interviewed, and you can download a pdf of them here.

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Note: The Homeless Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey (HYRRS) investigators include Anamika Barman Adhikari, Kimberly Bender, Hsun-ta Hsu, Kristen Ferguson, Sarah Narendorf, Diane Santa Maria and Jama Shelton.

robinAbout the Author: Robin P. Petering, MSW is a PhD candidate in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Her research interests center on understanding the social determinants of risk behaviors among vulnerable youth. She is a co-Primary Investigator on a multi-city study assessing the health risks and resiliency of homeless and unstable housed young people. She also recently received an NIH fellowship to support her research on gang-involved homeless youth.

Homeless Youth Research at Saint Mary’s College: A Pilot Study That Became A National Study

The Social Work Program at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, is involved in researching issues of homelessness, with a focus on youth homelessness. The Social Work Program is collaborating with Youth Services Bureau of St. Joseph County (South Bend, IN) to find the best practices in providing services to homeless youth. This research collaboration involves Dr. Frances Bernard Kominkiewicz (Saint Mary’s College), Meredith Mersits and Kelly Crooks (Saint Mary’s Social Work Program alumnae), Liza Felix (Saint Mary’s Social Work student), and Lauren Kominkiewicz, MSW (Saint Mary’s BSW alum). Dr. Kominkiewicz and Lauren Kominkiewicz also conducted previous research on homeless youth, which they presented in Cologne, Germany.

Youth Service Bureau of St. Joseph County approached Dr. Kominkiewicz in 2014 with the concern that it was particularly difficult to locate homeless youth; therefore, making it difficult to conduct homeless youth counts, needs assessment, and meet the needs of homeless youth. It is well documented that homeless youth experience many issues related to housing insecurity.

A pilot study was initiated that shed light on the issue of youth homelessness in the South Bend area through qualitative research with local agency practitioners working with homeless youth. A quantitative and qualitative study is now being conducted on a national basis. Research methods involve telephone interviews and online surveys with representatives of organizations working with homeless youth. This research project quickly became a much larger project as many individuals across the United States heard about it and asked to be interviewed; a snowball sample was therefore utilized.

The purposes of the study were to:

  1. Increase knowledge of locating, interviewing, and emerging intervention needs with homeless youth.
  2. Develop a homeless youth social work assessment model to intervene with homeless youth based on the research data collected in this study. 
  3. Develop a working definition for homeless youth that will assist agencies and organizations in applying for funding resources to locate, interview, and intervene with homeless youth.

The study was designed to identify best practices for locating and intervening with homeless youth, including interviewing homeless youth, in order to assess and meet their needs. This research will increase knowledge about the methods and techniques used nationally in locating homeless youth through youth counts and other processes, including homeless youth interview questions that are integral to learning about the needs of homeless youth. A homeless youth assessment model, based on the data gathered, is under development.

The results of this study will be most useful to social work researchers, policy makers, and agencies and organizations in the discussion and continued development of best practices for locating, interviewing, and providing resources to homeless youth. The project has major ramifications in assisting organizations in finding the most beneficial practices for working with homeless youth. Additionally, developing a uniform definition of youth homelessness would be helpful for policy and service development and when applying for funding.

Blog Post Author: Frances Bernard Kominkiewicz, Ph.D., Professor of Social Work, Chair, Department of Social Work and Gerontology, and Director, Social Work Program, at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana.

Like this post?
Check out this one on University of Houston’s YouthCount 2.0!

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Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative.

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University of Denver Professor, Kimberly Bender, Writes about her Research on Preventing Victimization among Homeless Youth

Background

Homeless youth often leave home as a last resort to escape abusive home environments. In collaboration with Drs. Kristin Ferguson (Arizona State University) and Sanna Thompson (University of Texas, Austin – retired), my multi-site study of 601 homeless youth in Denver, Los Angeles, and Austin, found approximately 80% of youth experienced physical abuse and 36% sexual abuse prior to leaving home.

Unfortunately, once on the streets, youth face new victimization risks, such as robbery, assault, and sexual assault. Across the sites in our study, more than 83% experienced direct victimization while 78% witnessed victimization of others or were threatened with violence. Much of the violence experienced while homeless is severe and leads to significant physical and emotional injury. Unfortunately, those youth with the most significant trauma histories are most at risk for new experiences of victimization on the streets.

One explanation for the link between significant childhood trauma and later victimization is that early chronic abuse normalizes violent behavior and makes it difficult to detect new risks when they are encountered. For example, a youth who ran away from a violent home where they witnessed domestic violence may later miss red flags that a new acquaintance is being controlling, jealous, or emotionally abusive.

Our 145 qualitative interviews across the three cities helped us to identify the situations that place youth at risk for victimization and to better understand youths’ methods for detecting risk. Youth described the following risk cues:

  • Internal risk cues, consisting of physiological and physical sensations that indicated something was not right, such as tightness in their stomachs, racing hearts, chills;
  • Interpersonal cues, consisting of reading other people’s body language, mannerisms, and invasive questioning; and
  • Environmental cues, consisting of situations such as dark, isolated, and unfamiliar locations associated with danger.

Many youth stated that, although they used these cues to detect risk, danger could occur anytime and anywhere, suggesting that they often did not identify cues before victimization was unavoidable.

Safety Awareness for Empowerment (SAFE)

Safety Awareness for Empowerment (SAFE) is a mindfulness-based cognitive skill-building intervention aimed at training homeless youth to better detect danger cues and then problem solve and act assertively to avoid such dangers. The intervention uses mindfulness techniques to augment youths’ abilities to attend to internal, interpersonal, and environmental risk cues associated with victimization. The model was adapted from Dr. Anne DePrince’s Healthy Adolescent Relationship Project to reduce intimate partner violence among teen girls in child welfare. We modified the intervention to address risk cues identified through our previous qualitative and quantitative findings. Through a small randomized control trial with a total of 74 youth, SAFE was pilot tested and shown to increase risk detection abilities and improve some aspects of mindfulness.

Next Steps

A key factor associated with victimization is substance use. Youth who use substances are less able to detect danger cues and to defend themselves. At the same time, youth who have experienced trauma and victimization report more often using substances to self-medicate. SAFE, adapted to address these two interrelated problems, is now being tested with a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This larger 3-year trial will determine whether youth randomly assigned to participate in SAFE are less likely, compared to youth who receive usual shelter services, to experience victimization and use substances over a 6-month period.

Although victimization is quite elevated among homeless youth, it is not inevitable. We hope to empower youth to develop skills to keep themselves safe and healthy.

bender_kimberlyBlog Post Author: Kimberly Bender, PhD, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver

Kimberly’s area of expertise is psychosocial intervention for homeless youth. In addition to leading the research projects described in this blog post, she has published extensively in the areas of substance use, trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder, and broader mental health concerns experienced by homeless youth. Additionally, Dr. Bender prioritizes training students as research team members on her community-engaged research projects and has been recognized with several student-nominated awards.

Like this post?
Check out this one on Robin Petering’s experiences teaching yoga to homeless youth.

Want more info?
Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative.

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University of Houston, YouthCount 2.0!: Counting and Surveying Homeless Youth in Harris County

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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.

Want more info?
Visit our website to learn more about us and our National Homelessness Social Work Initiative.

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Creating Transgender-Affirming Homeless Service Agencies and Systems for Youth

“When you center the experience of the most marginalized, you create a system that better serves all.” – Jama Shelton, Deputy Executive Director of the True Colors Fund

Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. This number is astonishingly high considering that the rate is only about 7% in the general youth population. Adequately serving LGBTQ homeless youth is an imperative, as is preventing them from becoming homeless in the first place. However, not all subgroups of the LGBTQ community have the same needs and face the same challenges.

I recently attended a webinar hosted by the New York Coalition for Homeless Youth on creating transgender-affirming systems for homeless youth. The webinar was presented by Jama Shelton, Deputy Executive Director of the True Colors Fund, and provided a wealth of information relevant to homeless-specific and other services.

Transgender can be used as an umbrella term that captures multiple experiences of having one’s self-identity not conform to traditional male/female gender labels (including gender-queer, gender non-conforming, and gender expansive identities). Transgender youth commonly become homeless or runaway as a result of conflict in the home, often related to their gender identity or gender expression. Transgender youth tend to be homeless longer than other youth and commonly experience: a lack of social support; significant mental and physical health problems; barriers to accessing housing and employment; and barriers to accessing gender transition supports and services.

Some key priorities for organizations looking to become more transgender affirming are to:

  • Develop inclusive policies, procedures, paperwork, and spaces, even if you have yet to serve a client that openly identifies as transgender;
  • Develop clear inclusion statements that include gender and apply to staff and clients;
  • Create programs that provide transgender clients with respite from an often unaccepting world; and
  • Think through timelines and program requirements when working with transgender clients to consider if they are appropriate.

In addition to these broad ideas, Jama discussed some of the challenges faced by transgender homeless youth, followed by suggested solutions for organizations to implement. I’ve summarized some of these below.

Challenges

  • Not wanting to access services or shelter due to fear of being singled out, victimized, etc.
  • Service providers and programs that are uninformed and/or insensitive to transgender youths’ needs and experiences.
  • Staff/peers deliberately using incorrect names or pronouns.
  • Lack of access to appropriate restrooms and facilities.
  • Having to conform to dress codes that differ by gender.
  • Confidentiality concerns, such as being “outed” without consent.
  • Lack of appropriate role models.

Solutions

  • Educate and train staff about the needs and experiences of transgender youth, and provide them with skills to effectively work with transgender clients, including consent and confidentiality processes.
  • Identify and familiarize staff about local community-based supports for transgender youth.
  • Include gender when thinking about organization/program staff diversity.
  • Record and use youth’s preferred name and correct pronouns.
  • Create all-gender communal bathrooms or gender-neutral single bathrooms.
  • Allow youth to dress in a way that matches their gender identity.
  • Offer gender-neutral clothing and avoid organizing clothing donations by gender.
  • Offer/identify transgender-specific support groups.

The True Colors Fund conducts community organizing, public awareness, policy advocacy, training, and research activities all aimed at the prevention and reduction of homelessness among LGBTQ youth. They also coordinate the Forty to None Network, a free online support community available to anyone who supports this mission.

Thank you to the New York Coalition for Homeless Youth for hosting this informative webinar. The Coalition is a statewide network of organizations that serve homeless and runaway youth, and this webinar is an example of the type of training providers are able to receive through their membership in the coalition. If you or your organization work with homeless or runaway youth in New York State, please consider joining the coalition.

Blog Post Author: Amanda Aykanian, Research and Project Lead at the National Center

CSU Sacramento Professor and Students Help Conduct Project on Transient Homelessness

Research Team: Antoine Watkins (MSW II), Dr. Baiocchi, Russ Read (MSW II) and Matthew Foy (sociology MA)

Research Team: Antoine Watkins (MSW II), Dr. Baiocchi, Russ Read (MSW II) and Matthew Foy (sociology MA)

Dr. Arturo Baiocchi (assistant professor of social work at California State University, Sacramento), along with graduate students Matthew Foy (sociology), Russ Reed, and Antoine Watkins (social work) are helping to conduct a community needs assessment in Sacramento’s River District. The project, a collaboration with Sacramento Steps Forward (SSF), has a focus on homeless adults who have recently traveled to Sacramento.

SSF connects individuals experiencing homelessness to a wide array of housing services and programs in the community. In January, SSF began a new street outreach and coordinated entry program—Common Centsto engage chronically homeless individuals.  Equipped with an online-assessment tool, outreach workers are able to quickly assess individuals and coordinate their entry into appropriate programs. Since its launch, the program has interfaced with over 1,200 individuals and assisted over 200 transition into a housing program. More broadly, SSF has helped house over 2,000 individuals over the last year.

Matthew Foy, sociology graduate student, conducting in-person interviews with individuals at a homeless encampment near the bus-station.

Matthew Foy, sociology graduate student, conducting in-person interviews with individuals at a homeless encampment near the bus-station.

SSF recently asked Dr. Baiocchi and his students to help facilitate an exploratory project to understand motivations and factors that bring homeless individuals to the River District and Sacramento more broadly.  Because of its proximity to bus and train stations, as well as some service providers, the River District is often perceived to be an area where homeless individuals congregate. However, little research or data exist to support this assumption. Moreover, it is unclear why some individuals experiencing housing instability travel to Sacramento, and whether many, if any, do so to access services in the city.

The project is being conducted in conjunction with SSF’s outreach efforts in the River District during November and December of 2015 and will explore the following questions:

  1. What proportion of individuals contacted by SSF in the River District have traveled to Sacramento within the last 30 days?
  2. What motivates individuals to travel to Sacramento (e.g. seeking employment, passing through, central location, access to services, etc.)?
  3. What are the perceptions that individuals have of Sacramento, with respect to available services and supports?
  4. What new types of services and supports would these individuals benefit from, and can SSF provide these benefits?

The project hopes to explore the complex realities underpinning the ‘magnet myth’ of social services; the perception that increasing access to services attracts more homeless people to an area. More broadly, the project hopes to shed light on the motives/factors that contribute to transient homelessness in Northern California, particularly with respect to housing-insecure young adults traveling by bus and the challenges they experience accessing services and supports. Insights gleaned from the project will also help SSF more effectively tailor its outreach services to address the short and long term needs of its clientele, particularly those that have recently traveled to Sacramento.

Interior of greyhound bus station through which some individuals travel to Sacramento.

Interior of greyhound bus station through which some individuals travel to Sacramento.

Dr. Baiocchi and his students are helping train SSF staff on research methodologies associated with survey design, sampling, interviewing protocols, and qualitative approaches. Students will also be helping SSF contextualize their findings with respect to the research literature on issues related to transience, homelessness, and young adults. Students will help SSF facilitate a public presentation of key findings of the project to the community in Spring of 2016.

Blog Post Author: Arturo Baiocchi, PhD, Assistant Professor of Social Work at California State University, Sacramento

University of Houston: Creating the Blueprint to Reduce LGBTQ Youth Homelessness

Alan Dettlaff, Dean of the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, in partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, leads a new project to reduce homelessness among LGBTQ youth.file6171245785775

Of the estimated 1.6 to 1.7 million youth (ages 12 to 17) who experience homelessness each year, up to 40% identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or questioning (LGBTQ). These youth are also disproportionately youth of color. Practices have begun to emerge that have shown promise in responding to the needs of LGBTQ homeless youth. However, information on these practices has not been systematically collected, and no unifying practice models have emerged. To facilitate positive outcomes for LGBTQ homeless youth, additional information is needed on these emerging practices, as well as information on culturally responsive screening and assessment tools, training models for runaway and homeless youth (RHY) providers, and examples of policies and programs that facilitate LGBTQ homeless youth feeling safe, respected, and affirmed.

The 3/40 BLUEPRINT project will respond to these needs by developing a blueprint to reduce the 40% of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ. This blueprint will build the capacity of Transitional Living Programs to serve LGBTQ homeless youth by strengthening their efforts to better understand and address the needs of this population. Specifically, the proposed project will conduct:

  • a systematic review of existing literature;
  • a comprehensive needs assessment; and
  • a systematic identification and analysis of screening and assessment tools, existing and emerging practices, and trainings available for RHY providers.

The project will be guided by the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Intervention Model and an Implementation Science framework to identify the core intervention components and core implementation drivers that are necessary to implement and sustain evidence-informed practices with LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. The project will also have a particular emphasis on identifying the unique needs of LGBTQ homeless youth of color and the promising strategies that respond to those needs.

This project is a collaboration between the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. A Technical Expert Group, consisting of leading experts in the RHY and LGBTQ fields, will provide ongoing consultation and input on all tasks. All efforts will also be coordinated with the Runaway and Homeless Youth Networks of Support, including the Runaway and Homeless Youth Training and Technical Assistance Center, the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, and the National Runaway Safeline.

Blog Post Author: Alan Dettlaff, PhD, Dean of the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work