Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Last In the Youth Homelessness Series: Amanda's Reflections

I got involved with DCAYA during my first couple of months as a metro area couch surfer in early 2007. I stayed involved, for the most part, up until the day I was packing the last of my belongings (seriously, I called in for my last Youth Homelessness Committee meeting while the movers were loading up my stuff). I arrived in DC, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to pursue my passion of working to end youth homelessness. The DC advocate and provider community was just starting to come together around solidifying and improving services for homeless youth.

Truth be told, at the time, I had no idea that basically nobody knew anything about homeless youth in America. Through my volunteer work with DCAYA, I learned about the struggles faced by providers and often assumed to be faced by young people. As a solution-oriented person, I was über concerned about developing more housing programs, since this seemed to be the biggest challenge before us.

It wasn’t until 2010 that we finally began work on finding out what young people REALLY need to achieve stability. At first, we decided it'd be best to see what else people are doing around the country. I, the research nerd, dug up promising models to adapt to anecdotal stories and internal research from local providers. Things began moving full-steam ahead when the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) caught wind of our work. Just as Maggie Riden (now Senior Policy Analyst) came on board, the ICH asked us to make the youth plan an official part of the citywide plan to end homelessness.

Maggie went straight to work organizing committee meetings, planning retreats, and co-chairing the newly-formed ICH Youth Subcommittee. Our meetings dug into the depths of provider experiences and ideas around the current state of homeless youth services in DC as well as ideas for the future. The great thing about planning, though, is that it helps you see where the holes are. Although we were working to develop the next great idea to help DC government understand – and act on – our urgency, we realized that we needed to take a step back and answer some very serious questions.

Who are DC's homeless youth? We have fewer than 200 beds, but have served over 1400 youth. Where do they go when they're not in a program? What issues do they face, given their lack of housing? How did they become homeless in the first place?

The ICH Youth Homelessness Subcommittee knew we needed to answer these questions and decided that the next step had to be developing and implementing a study to get answers Fortunately, the DCAYA Youth Homelessness committee was already planning to execute the same type of study. I was hired to help facilitate the study and develop the report. I co-trained volunteers, sorted out logistics, interviewed young people, dug up local and national stats, compared research to the results of our own survey, and worked with Maggie to tease out the meaning of it all.

Aside from the obvious benefit to the community of homeless youth and service providers in DC and beyond, this effort has had a major impact on all involved. For me, being part of it has shaped who I am as a social worker, helped me develop and refine my professional goals, and inspired me to take my work to the next level by developing meaningful research on how to best help homeless youth build the lives they want to live. I am ever grateful for my 4 1/2-year journey with DCAYA and am beyond excited to know that I played a part in helping this study become a reality.

But it's not over! I look forward to seeing DC’s leadership use our report to see to the success of DC's most vulnerable youth. Many of these young people will one day be our leaders; it's up to us to make sure they have every opportunity to do so.

Amanda Michelle Jones, former DCAYA Graduate Research Assistant, is currently working towards a PhD in Social Work in Chicago, IL. You can keep up with her doctoral shenanigans at www.AmandaMichelleJones.com

More information on the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates and "From the Streets to Stability" can be accessed on dc-aya.org.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Message from Senior Policy Analyst Maggie Riden

Last week we released the findings of our youth homelessness study, From the streets to stability: A study of youth homelessness in the District of Columbia. This study is a ground breaking effort for the District in achieving a depth of understanding on the factors that lead our youth to homelessness, keep them from achieving stability and opportunities our community can leverage to propel them into successful and independent adulthood.

Over the next year you can expect to see a number of white papers and policy briefs that examine the findings laid out in our report through a prescriptive policy lens. These will be disseminated through our website and this blog; but before we get there, we wanted to take a minute and really discuss the importance of starting policy efforts in this arena with a solid basis in relevant data.

Before this research effort, little to no concrete information was available related to the issue of youth homelessness- in terms of the size of the population, or the unique needs and characteristics of homeless youth. Understanding the size and characteristics of the homeless youth population is critical for the planning and development of programs to prevent and end youth homelessness, as well as for evaluating the effectiveness of these interventions.

We wanted to know about personal and family history, educational status, employment rates and/or barriers to employment, health issues and perhaps most importantly- youth input on the services they need to become successful self sufficient community members. This type of information was critical because homeless youth are very different from their adult counterparts. They have, as the data reinforces, been subject to numerous systems failures that have resulted in educational gaps that hinder their successful entry into the workforce. They lack many of the interpersonal and independent living skills necessary to negotiate living on their own. Realizing this, we worked with numerous partners and experts to develop a survey that we hoped could gather information that would help guide policy decisions across all the agencies and systems that can play a role in both prevention and stabilization.

The information we gathered on all these elements is rich and complex. It speaks to the many ways in which we as a community- meaning families, neighbors, schools, community organizations and government agencies- can collaborate more effectively and approach youth homelessness through a preventive mindset. It highlights the ways in which homeless services must be tailored to youth- in terms of length of stay and scope of services needed at the various stages of development. Finally it reinforces the numerous and varied partnerships needed (at both the provider and policy development levels) to realize lasting self sufficiency for a homeless young person.

Finally, we hope the findings of this study, and the insights youth revealed while participating challenge our assumptions about homeless youth. Please forgive the cliché because in this instance it’s very true- these young people are not expecting a hand out, just a hand up. Time and again our information shows that these youth have a vision for their future and are highly aware of the work they must do to achieve it. They are ripe with possibility, but in need of guidance and support to realize their full potential.

In the coming months DCAYA will continue to bring you additional reflections on the findings and opportunities to participate in ongoing discussions with community partners, policy makers and other stakeholders to translate the findings of this study into actionable policy recommendations. In the meantime, take a moment to check out the findings and don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, thoughts or feedback.

Maggie Riden can be reached by email (maggie@dc-aya.org) or by phone at the DCAYA offices at 202.587.0616