Data Points: Prioritizing Youth for Housing

written by Sam Batko
August 6, 2013

There are not enough beds for the number of homeless youth in this country. I’d like that statement to stand on its own for a moment: there are not enough beds for homeless youth in this country.

If they are lucky, a homeless youth gets a shelter bed or sleeps on a friend or family member’s couch. If they are unlucky, they sleep on the streets, in cars, in abandoned buildings; they may ride public transit all night; or they may barter sex for a place to stay.  The important point here is: every night, homeless youth are turned away from shelter and housing programs because of a lack of capacity.

There are a couple of ways to solve this problem—or at least begin to address it. The obvious one is more beds. That means more money and other resources pumped into an overwhelmed shelter system. Unfortunately, government funding appears to be going the opposite direction.

Another way is prioritizing service rich housing programs for those youth most in need—those most vulnerable and most likely to remain homeless. And helping other youth, those who are less vulnerable, with lighter touches that require less resources.

I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with the vulnerability index that is used in some jurisdictions to target permanent supportive housing to individuals based on the fragility of their health. Unfortunately, youth tend not to meet those criteria, so how do we identify the most vulnerable youth?

An interesting presentation at our recent National Conference on Ending Homelessness by Eric Rice from the University of Southern California, proposed a way of doing just that. By looking at youth who had been homeless for five years or more, Rice identified 6 factors most closely associated with long homelessness stays and developed a triage tool in conjunction with CSH’s Stable Homes, Brighter Futures project:

  • Violence at home amongst family members,
  • Differences in religious beliefs with parents/guardians/caregivers,
  • Left group or foster home,
  • First marijuana use under the age of 12,
  • Spent time in jail or juvenile detention before the age of 18, and
  • Been pregnant or gotten someone else pregnant.

You may think, all of the kids in my program look like that, but based on Rice’s research only about 10 percent of homeless youth will meet four or more of these criteria.

While using these criteria for triaging youth and identifying those most vulnerable is promising, it is still being piloted and tested in a number of communities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, with hopefully more cities to follow. Until it is confirmed and widely available, programs should still be trying to target their resources to the youth most in need and those who would definitely not succeed without assistance.