A Q&A on Youth Homelessness

written by naehblog
November 1, 2013

November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. For this blog entry, we asked the Alliance’s Director for Families and Youth, Sharon McDonald, and the Alliance's Director of the Homelessness Research Institute, Samantha Batko, some basic questions about youth homelessness.


How many homeless youth are there?

During a year we estimate that approximately 530,000 unaccompanied, single youth and young adults up to age 24 experience a homelessness episode of longer than one week. Approximately 380,000 of those youth are under the age of 18. While this is a rough estimate made using imperfect information, it is a good starting point from which communities and the federal government can begin to scale resources and interventions.

How does homelessness affect youth? Are there some long-term effects for homeless youth?

There is a lot we still don’t know about the impact of homelessness on young people. What we do know is that youth face a lot of dangers on the street: they are susceptible to a lot of the same dangers that older homeless adults are exposed to: violence, drugs, the elements. Youth also seem to be particularly susceptible to commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Also, youth are still at a developmental stage where the amount of trauma they experience can permanently impact their long-term well-being. So if we don’t get them out of homelessness quickly, those experiences could have lasting implications. Moreover, this is a time when many young people have not completed high school. It is pretty well-documented that not having a high school diploma has long term consequences for employability and income.

You mentioned that about half a million youth experience a homelessness episode for longer than a week, but how accurate is that estimate?

Those statistics reflects the best information we have. The Department of Justice (DOJ) conducts the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrown-away Children (NISMART) and this is where the data for youth under the age of 18 comes from.  It is a bit dated and the DOJ is currently finalizing the analysis of a new NISMART survey so hopefully we’ll have new data soon.  The data for 18 to 24 year olds comes from the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, but also isn’t completely accurate because previously, the AHAR did not give a break out for 18-24 year olds—only 18-30 year olds. That will be changing in future AHARs.

To date, the most accurate way of enumerating both the sheltered and unsheltered homeless population is the Point-In-Time Counts held by most communities annually. Unfortunately, in the past these counts have not done a great job of including youth. That all changed for the 2012 point in time count as HUD placed new emphasis on counting youth and asked communities to separately report on the 18 to 24 age bracket.

What makes it hard for communities to count homeless youth? And, how can communities do a better job?

There are two basic ways we count homeless populations. We collect data from homeless service providers, places where people access services on the day or night of the count. With respect to this, it is easy to make sure youth are included in the count. Communities can work with youth serving agencies to ensure they submit data to be included in the final point-in-time count data.

The second, and more challenging aspect of a point-in-time count is a street count. It’s more challenging because you have to actually go where unsheltered, homeless people are. While sometimes they’re very visible, on park benches, subway stations and the like, often they’re invisible, either by intention or by accident. They may sleep in alleys, abandoned buildings, woods, garages, or cars. To do a good street count, you have to know where to look.

Youth homeless assistance providers report that youth on the streets aren’t easily identified through typical counts of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. That’s largely because these youth congregate in different areas at different times than older homeless adults. Also, they may be less willing to disclose that they’re experiencing homelessness  or they may not even identify as homeless. Communities should work with youth serving organizations as well as currently and formerly homeless youth to make sure they are targeting the proper locations at the right time of day.

The Alliance and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness have developed a number of materials on how communities can more effectively execute point-in-time counts that capture homeless youth. Additionally, the Urban Institute recently released findings from a process study of the Youth Count! Initiative.

It seems like, recently, there has been a lot of focus on counting homeless youth. How does that help us solve youth homelessness? And, what’s next?

You can’t solve a problem without knowing the scope of the problem. Once local communities have a better grasp of how many homeless youth they have, they’ll be able to scale interventions for youth with more accuracy. That being said, we’re still a long way from knowing what interventions are the most effective at ending youth homelessness and even the interventions we currently have fall woefully behind the need.

We know the most youth who become homeless will eventually return home to their families, some relatively quickly. Working with families to make that happen in a safe, healthy, and sustainable way, also known as family intervention, is a high priority federally and in local communities and programs.

Beyond that, we know that some youth will need longer term housing solutions and education, employment, and other services. For those youth, there are currently transitional living and transitional housing programs and there are some permanent supportive housing programs emerging. Targeting for those programs and program design and evaluation continue to be an areas of growth in the field, but there are really dedicated and committed providers in communities across the country that are doing amazing work and ending homelessness daily for youth in need.

Throughout the course of this month, the Alliance’s blog will examine research on homeless youth and profile promising programs and interventions. Stay tuned!