‘An open door and a helping hand’ for homeless youth

 A client from the STEPS transitional living program of Chicago's Night Ministry with her son. The program is for homeless youth ages 18 to 21 who are not wards of the state, and their children. The goal is to move people into permanent housing and self-stability. (Photo courtesy of the Night Ministry)


A client from the STEPS transitional living program of Chicago’s Night Ministry with her son. The program is for homeless youth ages 18 to 21 who are not wards of the state, and their children. The goal is to move people into permanent housing and self-stability. (Photo courtesy of the Night Ministry)

A new study from the Department of Health and Human Services paints a bleak picture for the nation’s homeless youth, but it also recommends some steps to help the tens of thousands of homeless young people on the nation’s streets.

Here are some of the conclusions from the just-released report, done with data collected by 11 agencies nationwide that work with homeless youth:

  • The average homeless youth spent nearly two years living on the streets.
  • More than 60 percent of homeless youth were raped, beaten up, robbed, or otherwise assaulted.
  • Nearly 30 percent of the HHS study participants identified themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and nearly seven percent identified as transgender.
  • About half of homeless youth had been in foster care, and youth with a foster care history had been homeless for much longer (27.5 months, on average) than youth who had never been in foster care (19.3 months, on average).

More than half of the study’s participants became homeless for the first time because they were asked to leave home by a parent or caregiver. More than half said they tried to stay at a shelter but that the shelter was full. More than half also needed a safe place to stay; help with education; access to laundry facilities; a place to study, rest, or spend time during the day; and a phone.

This comprehensive, first-of-its-kind study was funded by the HHS Administration for Children and Families’ Family & Youth Services Bureau and was conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The study focused on 873 youth ages 14 to 21, who were interviewed extensively by 11 agencies in cities across the country, from Boston to San Diego.

The number of homeless youth is hard to quantify. In its 2014 count of homeless individuals, which is done annually every January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development determined that there were 45,205 young people across the country who were homeless and without a parent or guardian. The Department of Education gives a figure almost twice as high, reporting that “an estimated 89,000 unaccompanied students experienced homelessness at some point during the 2013 to 2014 school year,” which is its most recent figure.

Covenant House is a national nonprofit group based in New York that delivers shelter and services to homeless youth in 27 U.S. cities. Its estimate of the number of homeless youth is much higher: According to its statistics, every year more than 2 million kids experience a period of homelessness in the United States.

But whatever the numbers, they aren’t good. Here are some other facts about homeless youth from Covenant House:

  • 57 percent of homeless youth spend at least one day every month without food.
  • In the United States, as many as 20,000 youth are forced into prostitution by human trafficking networks every year.
  • According to a study of youth in shelters, nearly 50 percent reported intense conflict or physical harm by a family member as a major contributing factor to their homelessness.
  • More than 25 percent of former foster children become homeless within two to four years of leaving the system.
  • 50 percent of adolescents aging out of foster care and juvenile justice systems will be homeless within six months because they are unprepared to live independently and have limited education and no social support.
  • Almost 40 percent of the homeless in the United States are under 18.

The HHS report gives no easy solutions to the problem of youth homelessness.

Study results suggest too few emergency shelter programs are available to meet the existing need. A larger investment is required to prevent youth from sleeping on the streets. More flexibility in shelter response would allow access for youth who have been turned away because they’ve reached the maximum stay or exceeded age restrictions. Communities may also want to consider innovative alternatives to emergency shelter, such as host homes. A larger investment is also needed to reunify youth with their families when possible. Family reunification with family support services can not only help to end a current episode of homelessness but also prevent future homelessness by addressing the reasons why a youth left home. Because emotionally connecting youth to their families has been found to positively impact youth outcomes, efforts should be made to emotionally connect youth to their families, when deemed appropriate, even if physical reunification isn’t possible.

There also were recommendations for intensive case management and targeted support services and interventions.

It is essential that intervention strategies are trauma-informed in all aspects of how they approach and support young people to facilitate healing and recovery, including engagement or reunification with families when it is appropriate. Youth also need interventions that can help them to reach positive developmental milestones and become healthy, productive adults, such as interventions that enhance youth skills, competencies, and existing strengths. Barriers to use of services and interventions identified by LGBT study youth included lack of LGBT-friendly policies and staff. Services and programs will need to be especially sensitive to LGBT and other special populations, like youth who have been in foster care and pregnant and parenting youth, who are over-represented in the homeless youth population and are at even higher risk of experiencing health and mental and behavioral health issues.

One of the 11 agencies that conducted research for the HHS study is the Night Ministry in Chicago. Now in its 40th year, the Night Ministry provides “housing, health care, and human connection” to Chicago’s homeless community, providing services to around 5,200 homeless adults, teens, pregnant teens, and new young mothers “who have nowhere else to go.” The Night Ministry has grown to have a budget of roughly $6 million.

Among its services is the Health Outreach Bus, which serves homeless adults in five different neighborhoods throughout Chicago, on the north, west, and south sides. The bus has a nurse practitioner who does medical exams, offers treatment, and provides testing for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. Outreach staff and volunteers distribute food to homeless people at each of the two stops per night on the bus’ run, which usually goes from 7 to 11:30 PM. When homeless people visit the bus at night, it’s often their first meal of the day.

The Night Ministry’s youth programs provide shelter and housing for homeless youth up to age 24, with 53 beds in different types of programs throughout the city. Its Youth Outreach Van and its Youth Shelter Network serve homeless and LGBT youth in a north side neighborhood. It runs the Crib, an overnight youth shelter that opened in 2011 for people age 18 to 24 that addresses immediate housing needs; a 120-day interim program that offers both longer-term housing and social services; and STEPS, a transitional living program for clients and their children. In a year’s time, about 200 young people stay in one of their programs—some for only one night, some for up to two years.

The Rev. Barbara Bolsen started at the Night Ministry nearly 20 years ago as a youth outreach worker, sometimes driving the night outreach bus. She is now vice president for strategic partnerships, where she oversees the volunteer department and works with partners like church congregations, nonprofit organizations, and other agencies. “No agency can provide all of the services a population needs,” she said. “My role is to provide strategic partnerships to deliver services. Generally, if it involves collaborations, it falls into my area.”

The Night Ministry serves homeless youth as young as 14. The agency is required to get the consent of a parent or guardian to serve the youth clients. If it can’t, for instance, in a case where a parent is also homeless, “you have to document that you tried really hard to get that consent,” Bolsen said.

In 2012, organizations serving the homeless in Chicago launched Plan 2.0, which has a seven-year goal of ending homelessness in the city. Among the plan’s seven strategic priorities is “to prevent homeless youth from becoming the next generation” of homeless adults. “For the first time, it very specifically addressed youth homelessness,” Bolsen said. “The purpose is to be collaborative with agencies that have been working in the trenches for 40 years.”

Along with releasing the new report on youth homelessness, HHS has started a new public service announcement campaign to address the problem. In a 30-second video, kids hold up signs telling the reasons they are homeless, including “I ran away because home didn’t feel safe” and “I became homeless for being gay.” The spot ends with avenues to contact for help.

In an HHS blog, Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell describes the extreme challenges faced by homeless youth and how the government can help. She is chair of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. “If you know of any young people who need help,” she writes, “call the National Runaway Safeline at 1-800-RunAway, visit 1800runaway.org, or text 66008. Spread the word about these options on social media, and to organizations you know who might come into contact with homeless young people.”

Chicago soon might be getting more help in housing homeless youth. This summer, Covenant House plans to open a new facility in the city—the first time the group will offer services in Illinois—with capacity for 20 beds for homeless people under 21. According to a story in the Chicago Tribune, the new center will be funded privately for at least a few years, meaning that the new Covenant House facility won’t compete for public funds that have been frozen during a state budget crisis.

Covenant House “can bring private resources to the table,” said Julie Dworkin, policy director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, in the Tribune story. “There’s never been enough resources in Chicago for homeless youth.”

The coalition estimated that there are more than 11,000 homeless ages 14 to 21 over the course of a year in Chicago. The Chicago Public Schools said it had more than 2,600 homeless students during the 2014-15 school year. A 2015 count by the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services reported more than 500 homeless youth 24 and younger in shelters for the January annual count, along with about 120 not in shelters.

The Night Ministry’s Bolsen said it’s hard to measure the success of any program helping homeless youth in numbers. Successes, she said, “come one at a time. In recent years, we’ve had a fair number of young people attending college. We’ve seen them make progress in the longer-term programs and move out into their own apartments and get jobs. It’s also exciting when we can reunite a young person with their family.

“The biggest success,” she added, “is how do we affect the lives of the young people we help.”

Originally posted on Daily Kos, April 17, 2016.


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