Foreclosure King or Homeless Advocate?

Bank of American and the United Way Partner on Youth Homelessness Summit

BOSTON, Mass.—The United Way, partnered with Bank of America, held the Boston Youth Homelessness Summit on Thursday, June 20. The audience included members from prominent organizations like Youth on Fire and Bridge Over Troubled Waters, alongside a few private companies.

The summit was held in the auditorium of the Federal Street Bank of America (BOA). Statistics on homelessness were read on a stage framed by two wooden columns engraved with BOA logos, and the president of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, Mike Durkin, kicked off the summit with a welcome address that declared, “Bank of America’s interest [in youth homelessness] is real.”

It was an ironic beginning to a summit on homelessness, but presenters soon dove into the details of tracking and providing services to homeless youth.

Mary Cunningham, senior research associate from the Urban Institute; Mike Pergamit, senior fellow from the Urban Institute; and Jim Greene, director of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission all addressed the crowd. The presentation focused on the difficulties of data collection and undertakings to improve survey methods, which is often overlooked in favor of direct service.

“Without numbers, we can’t measure progress,” Cunningham said. Data collection is the key to creating and supporting policy, but outdated or inaccurate information only hurts the process. “Current collection methods often miss youth,” she said, because young people often congregate in different areas than homeless adults.

Pergamit then presented Youth Count!, Urban Institute’s survey project that spans nine cities, including Boston. Youth Count! aims to improve data collection on youth homelessness by introducing new and improved methods that are better-suited to an elusive population. An example of a new method would be magnet events—social events designed to attract homeless youth, making them easier to find and meet. An example of improvement would be changing the language on surveys to focus more on housing stability than homelessness.

“Don’t ask them ‘are you homeless,’” Pergamit said. “Many don’t see themselves that way.” He suggested that questions like “where did you sleep last night” can be more effective.

Magnet events and refocused surveys proved to be very effective, as did engagement with youth service providers and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) organizations. (LGBTQ youth are much more likely to be homeless.) Social media outreach, though far from perfect at the moment, has shown promise. However, there are still many inconsistencies across the nine cities involved in Youth Count!, and many methods and surveys still need review to determine what works best.

Greene rounded out the presentation by explaining the Emergency Shelter Commission’s involvement in the study, which managed to collect data from 167 young people. Youth Count! was a daunting task, comparable to “building an airplane while flying it,” Greene said. The commission also handles Boston’s annual one-night Homeless Census.

Greene said that 100 of the survey participants were male, 58 were female, three were female-to-male transgender, two were male-to-female transgender, and four did not respond. This data reveals a higher female homelessness rate among youth populations. (The adult population is usually 20 percent female.) Thirty-six of the 58 women surveyed have had children, though only four had actual custody of their children. Sixty-four actually came from out state. Sixty-seven percent identified as white, 54 percent as black, and 10 percent as Native American—though respondents were allowed to choose more than one ethnicity. Forty-four individuals identified as Hispanic. The average age of homelessness was 17.

The full report will be published on July 30.

The next was a panel made up of Anisha Chablani, chief knowledge officer of Roca; Liz Curtis Rogers, executive director of the Massachusetts Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness; and Danielle Ferrier, executive director of Rediscovery and vice president of the Justice Resource Institute. Each panelist discussed their program and stressed aggressive outreach tactics.

Roca, which primarily helps formerly incarcerated young men and pregnant mothers—two groups who have trouble finding work or housing and shelter—relies on youth workers for engagement and outreach. They also try to keep their youth members engaged in various activities or jobs until a match is made.

“We’ll drag you into this and see if you like it,” said Chablani, “If not, onto the next option.”

Rogers placed an emphasis on easy access and forgiveness in youth programs. “They don’t get kicked out for one mistake,” she said.

“We work from a prevention first model,” said Ferrier, who also represents Rediscovery’s Youth Harbor project.

As informative as the summit was, the choice of venue will seem surprising to those who have followed the foreclosure crisis and investigations into Bank of America’s foreclosure fraud.

A few days before the summit, former Bank of America employees testified in court that the bank gave gift cards to employees who pushed customers to foreclose, even if that meant lying to them or delaying the process. This revelation was part of the newest federal lawsuit against the bank.

Bank of America has also faced a $1 billion federal lawsuit for mortgage fraud, and it was forced to pay $20 million for illegal foreclosures on active-duty soldiers.

Though unaccompanied youth homelessness can be traced to many different causes that are not necessarily related to poverty—such as abuse—researchers are investigating the potential link between the foreclosure crisis and homelessness.

The most comprehensive study comes from Richmond, Virginia, where the nonprofit Homeward found that the share of foreclosures leading to homelessness increased from 6 to 13 percent between July 2008 and January 2012.

Vice President Eng doesn’t believe Bank of America’s worsening reputation undermines the United Way’s mission.

“They’ve been a major funder in building economic stability for families, and our biggest supporter in the area of homelessness,” said Eng, “From our perspective, Bank of America has been crucial in helping us fund these projects.”

Bank of America spokesperson T. J. Crawford agrees.

“The United Way is our largest philanthropic partner—since 1999, we’ve invested more than $514 million to support a common goal of improving lives and, in turn, our communities,” Crawford explained, “We consistently rank as one of their top-10 supporters through our annual employee campaign, which in 2012 raised more than $20.5 million. Locally, our partnership with United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley is longstanding and multifaceted. Please note those are nationwide figures.”

Others feel Bank of America’s lending and foreclosure practices prey on precisely the people organizations like the United Way are trying to help.

“This bank has systematically defrauded almost everyone with whom it has a significant business relationship, cheating investors, insurers, homeowners, shareholders, depositors, and the state,” said “Rolling Stone” journalist Matt Taibbi at an Occupy Wall Street protest last year, “It is a giant, raging hurricane of theft and fraud, spinning its way through America and leaving a massive trail of wiped-out retirees and foreclosed-upon families in its wake.”

– Alex Ramirez

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