Counting an Invisible Population

written by Emanuel Cavallaro
November 9, 2012

Youth Point-In-Time Counts Q&A

The Alliance estimates that each year 1.7 million children have a runaway or homeless episode, with 400,000 remaining homeless longer than a week. This coming January, communities across the country are making a concerted effort to include youth in the biennial Point-In-Time Counts. In recognition of National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, we at the Alliance are highlighting the issue of youth homelessness in our blog. For this blog entry, I asked the Alliance’s Director for Families and Youth, Sharon McDonald, and our Policy and Program Analyst on youth and child welfare, André C. Wade, some basic questions about youth homelessness and what we hope to accomplish with this January’s Point-In-Time Count.

How does homelessness affect youth, compared to how it affects adults? Are there some long-term effects for homeless youth?

We’re still learning most things, from a research standpoint. There’s the idea that the more often youth run away from home, the more susceptible they are to commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking. During these core developmental years, the amount of trauma a youth experiences can impact their long-term well-being. So if we don’t get them out of homelessness and into safety soon, those experiences could have lasting implications. Moreover, this is a time when many young people are finishing school, so it could negatively impact their education, which could have lasting negative consequences for their skills, employability and income.

What about their mental health and the trauma of living on the street?

Well, trauma is trauma, no matter who’s being affected by it. But in your formative years, it impacts brain development, your emotional stability, your ability to connect and form relationships. It’s imperative that we decrease the episode of homelessness to decrease the impact of trauma on these young people.

We estimate that 1.7 million children have a runaway or homeless episode each year, with 400,000 remaining homeless 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 comes from.  It is a bit dated and the DOJ is currently  conducting a new NISMART survey, but it will be a few years before a report is released.  However, NISMART doesn’t collect information about youth who have been away from home for longer than a year, and it only looks at youth under the age of 18, even though young adults age 18 and older are also vulnerable.

One of the benefits of a Point-In-Time Count is that it tells us how many youth are homeless in a given community.  While it’s important to know that across the country 1.7 million youth under the age of 18 experience homeless, it’s just as important for community leaders to know how many young people are homeless in their town and whether these young people are in shelters or are in unsafe, inappropriate locations. It’s also important for building the political will to end youth homelessness.

What should people know about the upcoming Point-In-Time Counts?

The administration has always required communities to count youth experiencing homelessness as part of the Point-In-Time Counts. This year the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is requiring in its guidance that communities report separately on youth, ages 18 to 24, in addition to unaccompanied youth under age 18. In the past, youth in this age 18 to 24 age group have been lumped in with adults, ages 18 to 30. So now we’re going to be able to reach an estimate of how many youth in this age group are experiencing homelessness. So far, we haven’t been able to do that.

Why is there a new emphasis on this 18 to 24 age range?

Advances in the child and youth development field have shown that youth undergo significant developmental changes during this period of their lives. So just because you’re 18 and you’re an adult by law, that doesn’t mean that developmentally you’re an adult. Youth between the ages of 18 to 24 are transitioning into adulthood, and may have their own special needs. That’s why HUD is trying to make sure that communities count and report on homeless youth ages 18 to 24. You can’t solve a problem without knowing the scope of the problem. So that’s going to improve our data, which is what we use to determine the scale of the community’s need with regard to this population. We’ll be able to size and scale interventions and housing for youth homelessness with greater accuracy. That’s why HUD is asking communities to make a special effort to find unaccompanied youth on the night of the Point-In-Time Counts.

How do we count youth experiencing homelessness?

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. The second, and more challenging way 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.

What sorts of characteristics of  homeless youth make it hard for communities to count them?

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. When it comes to homeless youth, they don’t want to hang out at the same place as people who are in an older age range. Also, they may be less willing to disclose that they’re experiencing homelessness  or they may not even identify as homeless. They may also work harder to try to blend in with peers who aren’t homeless, so it may be hard to distinguish them from other youth who aren’t homeless.

What are we doing differently this time around to make sure youth are more accurately represented in the counts?

Communities are partnering with youth homeless assistance providers and other individuals who are knowledgeable about homeless youth. This might include police, teachers, and other young adults who are experiencing homelessness or have in the past. These individuals can help identify “hot spots,” which are places where youth congregate, and identify times when youth can be found there. This kind of partnership is innovative and has been rare, but it’s crucial because, typically, adult homeless assistance providers are unaware of these hot spots. Youth providers know about street outreach and are aware of these hot spots, but haven’t necessarily been participating in their communities’ Point-In-Time Counts.

What are some of the most effective strategies or techniques?

It’s all about figuring out the best time of day and the location of these hot spots and encouraging youth involvement in the counts. There are communities who have been doing youth counts, historically, that we can learn from, and we have a pretty good sense of what techniques work. As an example, instead of counting youth at night, when they tend to be harder to find, some communities may want to count them between 3 and 7 p.m. Also, youth involvement is really important. Youth volunteers should be involved in peer recruitment to create a snowball effect; one volunteer talks to his friend, who talks to his friend, who talks to her friend, and so on. You need that snowball sampling component in order to reach them.

How often are homeless youth prepared and willing to help with the PIT Counts?

It may be challenging. They certainly have more pressing concerns, including meeting their basic needs and finding a safe place to stay. In addition, many homeless youth have suffered abuse and have run away from home and so aren’t always trusting of authority or adults. But we do know that communities are already successfully recruiting youth to help them plan for the PIT Counts. We can learn from them.

Historically, have youth homeless assistance providers worked with communities on Point-In-Time Counts?

Not necessarily. The involvement of youth providers has varied from community to community. Youth providers typically don’t work with the larger homeless service system. They often have different funding streams and serve different subpopulations of the overall homeless population. While HUD has always required that homeless youth be counted, communities haven’t always focused their attention on finding homeless youth being served outside of the adult system; and youth service providers weren’t always at the table during the planning for the counts.

This is the first time that youth homeless assistance providers are working with communities. Why is that happening?

We all recognize that homeless youth are undercounted in PIT Counts, and this has undermined communities’ ability to respond to youths’ needs, in addition it leads to an insufficient response by the federal government. This is all about improving our data, so we can improve our ability to end youth homelessness.

Are the PIT Counts changing in any way that will give us the scope of the problem of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness?

So, when you do the count, it’s usually just a headcount. You don’t really ask them their sexual orientation or gender identity. We’re encouraging communities to ask about sexual orientation or gender identity if they’re doing a survey, just to get better numbers, but that’s not exactly the best way to get the data. A homeless youth might not want to answer and could easily choose not to answer. But still, it might give us a sense of things.

Will getting a more accurate count result in more federal funding for youth services?

It might compel local communities and congress to invest more resources to assist homeless youth once we know the scale of the need. It might also compel communities to target more of their resources to interventions that meet the needs of specific subsets, such as the 18 to 24 age range. HUD has always provided funding that providers have used to serve homeless youth. However, these services may not have been provided by practitioners with an expertise in youth development. Right now many of these youth are primarily being served by adult programs that don’t meet their full range of needs or take into account where they are developmentally. A better sense of the scale of homeless youth may result in increased investment in youth-specific interventions.

What’s the Alliance doing right now?

We’re encouraging every community to commit to doing the best possible count of homeless youth. So, we’re educating the field about the importance of counting youth and the best methodologies to use.  We are stressing the importance of certain steps communities can in planning take such as n developing  key partnerships to  make sure they’re on board, and how to use the data. We’re also making sure communities have the resources to do accurate counts.