Throughout the course of this past summer, Chapin Hall and the University of Chicago have led an initiative to better understand homelessness in youth populations across the United States. The project, called Voices of Youth Count, utilizes 22 teams strategically based around the nation whose job is to observe hot spots of youth homelessness, analyzing details such as the frequency of homelessness, its causes, the services that the homeless are being provided and what issues come with being on the streets.
One factor that makes this initiative stand out among the rest is the representation among those leading it. Young people who have had experience with being homeless were at the forefront of informing the groups about where the “hot spots” are located, among other duties. Youth were even responsible for deciding on the 100 sites around the country where the counts were to take place.
“Youth were at the center of the process. From planning to execution, the count was youth informed and youth led,” said Katy Miller, regional coordinator at the United States Interagency Council for Homelessness (USICH). Miller joined groups in Seattle—a city with a sizable homeless population, especially in those under the age of 25—to observe the processes involved in this endeavor. She, among many others, saw first hand the importance of representation in this project, both analytically—gathering more accurate numbers with the help of people who know where to look—and politically. The VOYC illustrates grassroots reform, working directly with the populations affected to bring bottom-up change.
“Youth are the experts on their own experiences and must have a voice in creating and designing the policies and services that impact them,” said Jasmine Hayes, deputy director at USICH. “Engaging youth with lived experience for this count helps local communities do a better job of identifying and connecting young people experiencing homelessness through peer outreach and engagement, and it provides opportunities for young people to shape and inform key findings.”
The count comes at a time when awareness of childhood homelessness is permeating and when the greater public is beginning to see the concerning numbers associated with these realizations. As of 2014, around 45,000 unaccompanied children and youth are without a home, according to USICH’s 2015 report titled “Preventing and Ending Youth Homelessness: A Coordinated Community Response.” The report also states that about 90,000 unaccompanied youth in public school districts identified as being homeless at some point in the 2013–2014 academic year.
According to a study published this year by California State University’s School of Social Work, 1 in 10 CSU students are homeless.
The factors kicking youth out into the streets are abundant. For instance, as much as 40 percent of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ, which brings to light conflicts of familial neglect and prejudice toward sexual orientation. One in four youth involved in Family and Youth Services Bureau living programs are either pregnant or already parenting. Racial disparity, substance abuse, mental health issues and economic instability also remain on the forefront in terms of causes of homelessness among youth.
“In order to address those factors, we need a collaborative, interagency approach that provides targeted interventions along a range of age-and-developmentally-appropriate programs and services,” said Hayes.
One such collaboration is already being conducted by USICH, a program called Opening Doors. Its mission is to gather information that is already available and make undoubtedly valuable revelations that will be published by VOYC and use them to create a coordinated push to end youth homelessness by the year 2020.