Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reducing Youth Homelessness by Investing in Stronger Families

This post is the fifth in a series of blogs in honor of National Youth Homelessness Awareness Month. This week's guest blog comes to us from Eddie Ferrer  the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of DC Lawyers for Youth, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the DC juvenile justice system by advocating for reforms that promote positive youth development, effective legal representation, and supportive relationships between the community and DC’s youth.

Youth homelessness is a problem that should not exist in the Nation’s Capital. Unfortunately, the District’s approach to youth homelessness – much like its approaches to delinquency and child welfare – is reactive  and disjointed instead of proactive and part of a larger comprehensive youth development strategy. The reality of the matter is that youth homelessness, delinquency, and child maltreatment are all by-products of the same fundamental failure by the District – failing to confront and address the fact that poverty-stricken families in the District need additional support in order to be successful. As a city, we can continue to ignore this reality and continue to react to these problems as they are repeated in each successive generation of poor families in the District, or we can invest in proactive solutions that strengthen families and empower them to break the generational cycle of poverty and dysfunction.

With respect to youth homelessness specifically, recent research conducted by the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates provides insight into how to confront the problem at its source instead of addressing youth homelessness after it occurs. DCAYA’s survey research reveals that there are three broad buckets of factors that homeless youth attribute to their permanently leaving their home of origin: 1) family dysfunction; 2) economic issues; and 3) anti-social behaviors by the youth or parent.[i] Family dysfunction, which includes abuse and neglect as well as intense conflict in the home, was reported as the primary or secondary cause of leaving home by nearly half of the homeless youth surveyed. As such, strengthening families through the reduction of abuse, neglect, and familial conflict should become the primary goal in the fight against youth homelessness and a priority for the District of Columbia in its launch of a comprehensive youth development strategy.

To further the objective of strengthening families to reduce youth homelessness, the District should take the following three steps:

1) Pilot the Triple P Parenting program. The Triple P Parenting program is a multilevel system designed to improve parental competence, prevent or change dysfunctional parenting practices, and reduce family risk factors for child maltreatment and children’s behavioral and emotional problems.[ii] When implemented with fidelity,[iii] the Triple P Parenting program decreases instances of child maltreatment, decreases childhood hospitalizations, and decreases the need for foster care placements. The estimated cost of launching the Triple P Parenting program in the District, which would enable the program’s availability to all DC parents of youth ages 0 to 12, is approximately $11 million. The estimated cost savings to District taxpayers resulting from the program’s outcomes is approximately $53 million.[iv]

2) Expand D.C.’s repertoire of home visiting programs to include The Nurse-Family Partnership program. The Nurse–Family Partnership program provides low-income, first-time mothers of any age with home-visitation services from public health nurses.[v] The program addresses substance abuse and other behaviors that contribute to family poverty, subsequent pregnancies, poor maternal and infant outcomes, sub-optimal childcare, and limited opportunities for the children. When implemented with fidelity, the program reduces the instances of child maltreatment, reduces the likelihood that the mother or child will engage in future criminal activity, and increases the mother’s time between pregnancies. The estimated cost of providing NFP to every poor first time mother in DC is approximately $48 million. The estimated cost savings to District taxpayers resulting from the program’s outcomes is approximately $66 million.[vi]

3) Improve access to Functional Family Therapy. Functional Family Therapy (FFT) is a family-based prevention and intervention program for high-risk youth.[vii] While offered by a number of service providers in the District, I have had an incredibly difficult time actually getting FFT for the youth I represent in delinquency matters despite the intervention’s proven ability to reduce recidivism when administered with fidelity. Providing better access to FFT through delinquency matters, child welfare matters, and through contact with the Collaboratives should assist older youth and their families reduce the conflict in the home that leads to youth homelessness. The Washington State Institute of Public Policy estimates that society receives $10.42 in increased tax revenue and cost savings for every dollar invested in Functional Family Therapy.[viii]

Strengthening families in the District of Columbia is a worthwhile investment. In addition to reducing the instances of child maltreatment and familial conflict that cause youth homelessness, strengthening families will yield a host of additional benefits to the District, including better outcomes for youth, safer streets, and saving DC money that can be reinvested in addressing the other root causes of youth homelessness.

Eddie Ferrer is the Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of DC Lawyers for Youth.  During his 14 years in DC, Eddie has served as a tutor, coach, abuse & neglect compliance intern, special education advocate, juvenile defender, ANC Commissioner, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Next Step Public Charter School, and Chair of the Board of the Campaign for Youth Justice.  He is a proud double Hoya, graduating with this B.S. in Business Administration in 2002 and his law degree in 2005.  

[i] Margaret Riden & Amanda Michelle Jones, DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, From the Streets to Stability: a study of youth homelessness in the District of Columbia, November 2011, available at
[ii] See also
[iii] Fidelity to the original program design is critical when implementing programs that have been evaluated and proven to work.  For a good overview of the concept of fidelity, see
[iv] DC Population estimates are based on data from the American Community Survey.  See  Cost-Benefit calculations are based on the Washington State Institute of Public Policy’s Return on Investment: Evidence-Based Options to Improve Statewide Outcomes, April 2012, available at
[v] See also
[vi] DC Population estimates are based on data from the American Community Survey.  See  Cost-Benefit calculations are based on the Washington State Institute of Public Policy’s Return on Investment: Evidence-Based Options to Improve Statewide Outcomes, April 2012, available at
[vii] See
[viii] DC Population estimates are based on data from the American Community Survey.  See  Cost-Benefit calculations are based on the Washington State Institute of Public Policy’s Return on Investment: Evidence-Based Options to Improve Statewide Outcomes, April 2012, available at

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Different Kind of "Youth" Homelessness

This post is the fourth in series of five in honor of National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. This week’s blogger is Christie Walser, the Executive Director of Project Create, an organization here in the District that exposes children and youth experiencing homelessness to the arts. It’s important to note, that the youth homelessness data we have been reporting on in our other blog posts does not include the population of young people that organizations like Project Create serves; specifically those children and youth who are still connected to their families but living in doubled up situations, in emergency shelters or in short term housing programs. The impact of unstable housing on this group of children and youth is, as you’ll hear from Ms. Walser, profound and we hope this piece helps to shed a light on this facet of homelessness here in the District. 

Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see. (Paul Klee)

Current statistics on youth homelessness and poverty in Washington, D.C. are heartbreaking. In the District, nearly 30% of children live at or below the poverty line, a rate which is about 10% higher than the national child poverty rate. East of the Anacostia River, child (under age 18) poverty rates are even higher (40% in Ward 7 and nearly 50% in Ward 8). As poverty in D.C. increases, so does homelessness; the number of homeless families in the city rose 19% from 2011 to 2012. Tragically, there are nearly 2,000 children in homeless families in Washington, D.C. this year. [i]

We know that children and youth experience a wide array of problems due to their homelessness and poverty. Homeless children are three times more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioral problems than their housed counterparts. They are four times more likely to display delayed academic development. Poor children are also twice as likely to be suspended, expelled, or drop out of high school. [ii]

For nearly twenty years, Project Create has worked to counter the debilitating impact of homelessness and poverty on the lives of thousands of children and youth in Washington, D.C. In partnership with organizations that provide housing for homeless families (like SOME and Community of Hope), Project Create provides positive youth development, through arts education and enrichment, to at-risk, underserved District children. Our students are vulnerable kids who don't know where and when they'll be moving or who they'll encounter along the way -- who might help them, who might harm them.

In the face of the urgent needs of these children, how can art possibly make a difference? People often ask me—why arts education? I have seen, up close, the transformational power of art that occurs when our students put cameras to their eyes, hold drumsticks in their hands, or travel to see a masterpiece at the National Gallery—and then come home and paint what they saw. I witness the impact of art when our students sing and dance, sculpt clay for the first time, or display their artwork. Through creative expression, imagination, and the freedom of abstraction, these children come alive and their lit fuses cannot be extinguished. I’ve heard it said, and I believe, that “arts education is not a flower, but a wrench.” [iii]

Art makes it possible for children to recover from and be resilient in tough times. For Project Create students and their families, many of whom live in high-poverty neighborhoods East of the Anacostia River, it can be difficult for them to find, in their own world, the beauty and creative potential of life when they are so busy simply surviving. But, in the lives of our students, art lifts their spirits and grants them creative opportunities to transcend the limitations of their lives with hope for the future. Through art they learn to communicate more effectively and to act as their own advocates. And these critical skills stay with them and continue to enrich them for the rest of their lives.

A new study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that at-risk kids exposed to the arts had better academic outcomes, higher career goals, and greater civic engagement. Thus, they contribute more to their communities, achieve more themselves, and have higher aspirations and hope—all from engaging in art![iv]

Art is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. The act of artistic creation is transformative, and, for the large population of children in our city who are experiencing poverty and homelessness, the potential impact of this transformation is even more necessary and more urgent.

Christie Walser joined Project Create as Executive Director in January 2011. Her personal and professional experience in Washington, D.C. over the last two decades includes nonprofit administration, arts management, child advocacy, and community theater. Ms. Walser holds a Master of Public Administration degree, along with a Certificate in Nonprofit Management. She still can't draw.

[i] Statistics provided by Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Inc. (updated October 2012).

[ii] “The Characteristics and Needs of Families Experiencing Homelessness,” National Center on Family Homelessness, December 2011.

[iii] “Re-Investing in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future through Creative Schools,” President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, May 2011.

[iv] “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies,” National Endowment for the Arts, March 2012.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

LGBTQ Homeless Youth Act of 2012

Yesterday, Council Members Cheh and Graham introduced a piece of legislation (LGBTQ Homeless Youth Act (B19-1012) of 2012) seeking to amend the Human Services Reform act , the act that defines the District's continuum of care for homeless services . The timing of this legislation is auspicious in that November is Homeless Youth Awareness Month, and hopefully a signal that the Council has taken the clear and immediate issue of youth homelessness to heart and is committed to taking the steps necessary to address this issue locally.

DCAYA's Executive Director Maggie Riden, in addition to a number of DCAYA member organizations and allies, testified before the Committee on Human services on the proposed amendment. Our testimony focused on why LGBTQ youth are at an especially high risk for experiencing homelessness, but also why the current set of services offered by the District is woefully inadequate. For instance, nationally up to 40% of the nation’s homeless youth identify as sexual minorities and available local data and research tell us as many as 2,000 LGBTQ youth are pushed out or make the decision to leave their homes each year. We also know that demand for LGBTQ services rapidly outpaces supply. Youth providers have reported waiting lists in excess of 90 young people.

Furthermore, national surveys tell us that when LGBTQ youth are in adult shelters, they are 10 times more likely than their straight peers to be sexually abused or to experience sexual misconduct by staff. Though many youth-serving housing providers in DC have taken steps to ensure staff training and safe spaces are provided for LGBTQ youth, these appropriate placements are often at capacity. This leaves staff to find referrals where quality of care may be unknown. 

Currently the only housing service in the District dedicated to homeless LGBTQ youth is  an 8-bed transitional living home run by Transgender Health Empowerment. There are currently zero beds available specifically to LGBTQ youth for emergency shelter/respite care.The reality is that we as a community lack capacity to meet the most basic need of nighttime safety for every youth; and we fall particularly short for those who are sexual minorities. 

DCAYA and our partners also offered up a number of recommendations to Council Members Graham and Cheh to help strengthen the legislation that we very much hope are taken into account moving forward. You can read full DCAYA's testimony and that of our partners on, and don't forget to we're celebrating Youth Homelessness Awareness Month ALL of November! Learn more about our photo and awareness campaign here.

For more information on DCAYA's advocacy around homeless and unstably housed youth, please visit us at or email us here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Youth Homeless Awareness Month Means Guest Bloggers!

This week we welcome Andre Wade from the National Alliance to End Homelessness as our guest blogger. This blog is the second in our month long series of blogs in honor of National Youth Homelessness Awareness Month. To find out how you can get more involved throughout the month of November and year round
please visit online at

Homeless Youth Awareness Month: 
What We Know, What We Need

November is Homeless Youth Awareness Month, a time to bring attention to what some call a ‘hidden population,’ because in some areas these youth are present but invisible in the community. Consequently, many cities across the nation are unaware of the actual number of youth experiencing homelessness in their community. Therefore, cities are unaware of these youths’ characteristics and needs. This begs the question, “Who are these youth and what do they need?”

We hear a lot about the 1.7 million minor youth that experience a runaway or homelessness episode each year. Well, if you break down these numbers you will find that 1.3 million minor youth return home quite quickly, but approximately 400,000 minor youth are homeless for a week or more and need shelter, housing, and services. An additional 150,000 young people ages 18-24 that experience homelessness each year are in the adult system. These families are headed by young parents who have very young children.

Youth experiencing homelessness need a variety of services and housing options to respond to their crisis to get them off of the street and into safety. Most youth who come into contact with youth homelessness providers need shelter. They also need help to re-connect to their family through family intervention services, which reunifies youth with their family. Family intervention is something all youth should be provided regardless of age, parental status, sexual orientation, or gender identity when it’s safe to do so. Family intervention can address the core issue that led to them leaving the home. 

When youth are unable to go back home, developmentally appropriate housing options should be made available. Often time youth are provided with transitional housing for up to 18 months. While they are in housing they are also able to access services such as case management, education, employment, and counseling. Additionally, other housing models should be available such as rapid re-housing, and permanent supportive housing – depending upon the needs of the youth.

For young parents who are struggling with homelessness, Early Childhood Home Visiting Programs can be valuable partners, for youth who have little social supports in place. These programs provide supports that are designed to improve the safety, developmental outcomes, and health of the child, while increasing the skills and self-sufficiency of the parents.

In January 2013 communities across the nation will conduct HUD mandatory bi-annual counts of people experiencing homelessness. For the first time, youth ages 18-24 are a recognized population for communities to report to HUD. The data collected will give communities better knowledge of the prevalence of youth homelessness so that interventions can be sized and policies can be created to solve the problem. With more data and research we’ll be able to better size interventions to solve this epidemic.

André C. Wade is a Program and Policy Analyst at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. His portfolio includes runaway and homeless youth, youth exiting foster care, LGBTQ youth homelessness, and commercial sexual exploitation of children. Currently, André is a Board of Director for StandUp for Kids, and Advisory Board member of Cyndi Lauper’s project, Forty to None, André is a former advisory board member for the Federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Training and Technical Assistance Center. André earned a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Join Our Advocacy on Behalf of Homeless Young People!

November is National Youth Homelessness Awareness month and the need for more awareness and action around this issue in the District is very real

Youth homelessness is a problem we should all care about, not just because it is a symptom of other issues like child abuse/neglect and family economic insecurity, but because once young people experience homelessness their risk of other negative outcomes skyrockets. Housing instability affects a young person’s ability to hold down a job and/or go to school which has many lingering economic effects on well-being and self-sustainability. Furthermore, youth experience emotional trauma when they disconnect from their family of origin and this is sustained throughout the period of housing instability. A young person’s physical health will also clearly be adversely affected by homelessness. [1] Youth who live on the street are consequently more likely to be involved in high risk behaviors like illegal activity (substance abuse, crime) and survival sex (prostitution).[2]

 For young parents experiencing homelessness there is a further risk of negative health/developmental outcomes for their custodial children; the effects of which will ripple into their own adulthoods. Furthermore, the longer a youth has been homeless, the more barriers to self-sustainability they must overcome, and the greater the risk they will end up as a chronically homeless adult.

Clearly the stakes are high when it comes to homeless young people, but how do we begin to address this issue? First, we have to ask some difficult questions: 1) How big is the problem? 2) What are the characteristics of homeless youth in the District? and, 3) What can we do about it?

How big is the problem?

Nationally, it’s suggested that as many as 8% of all youth under age 18 will experience homelessness each year.[3] Using that math, as many as 7,354 District youth could be experiencing homelessness annually.[4] But why do we apply the national average to the District, instead of relying on localized data? There is currently no exact number or even a good approximation of the number of homeless young people in the District. This is due in large part to the population’s lack of visibility. The District’s homeless young people are often not the evident “street” population (think chronically homeless adults) we see across the city. Young people who are “homeless” are often staying with relatives, friends, and in many cases strangers “couch surfing”. While on its face this may not seem like a bad situation, it is unfortunately just that.  At best these situations are unstable and piecemeal short-term solutions, but in worst case scenarios young people who have already experienced the trauma of leaving their family of origin are exposed to dangerous and damaging situations such as further abuse or exploitation.

 In 2011, DCAYA piloted the first local study on the nature of youth homelessness in DC. (you can find the DCAYA study here.)  In just a two week period, we made contact with 330 youth who were living in a shelter, in transitional housing, on the street, or who were “couch surfing”.  The fact that we were able to locate so many youth in such a short period of time suggests that the homeless youth population of DC is indeed close to the national figure of 8% of all youth.

What are the characteristics of homeless youth in DC?

DCAYA’s study sought to get a better handle on this question. What we found was that homeless youth in the District are a dynamic group of young people struggling to secure basic needs, while also trying to acquire the skills necessary to make the already difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood. The young people we talked to left home for a variety of reasons ranging from neglect/abuse, and family conflict to housing loss for the family of origin. Other key characteristics of this population at the local level included:
·         A high rate of youth who were currently or formerly system-involved (youth from the juvenile justice or child welfare system);
·         A high proportion of homeless youth who were themselves parents;
·         An overall lack of employment as a problem for youth in the District, which contributed to economic insecurity as well as unstable housing situations.

One issue worth mentioning with our survey data, was that due to the small sample size, we did not capture a significant number of LGBTQ youth. Nationally LGBTQ youth represent between 30% and 43% of those served by drop-in centers, street outreach programs, and housing programs.[5] While this could also be the case in DC, more data collection is needed before we can accurately gauge the size and needs of the homeless LBGTQ population locally.

What can we do?

Clearly the circumstances for homeless youth are dire, but there is some good news. For one, we know that prevention really is the best cure when it comes to youth homelessness. As such, strategies such as providing housing support and intensive resources to youth exiting or aging out of systems of care and ensuring whenever possible that families have the support and resources they need to stay together and in their homes are both great ways to keep young people stable and healthy.

We also know through ample research on best practices that certain program models and supports show promising results for youth who are currently experiencing homelessness.[6] Many of the effective program models; youth-specific housing and wrap-around support programs among them - have been in the District since 1974 and have grown in number especially in the last 20 years. Unfortunately, the establishment of quality outreach, shelter, and transitional housing services for youth has simply not been able to keep pace with demand. The District’s capacity for homeless youth is currently only 216 beds. We KNOW this is not enough. Youth housing providers in DC report continuous high “turn-away” rates and waiting lists that stretch into the double digits. Furthermore, those lists only capture youth who actively seek out housing assistance. Clearly the need for resources catered to this population is great, but presently largely unmet.

By investing in both preventative measures that keep youth from experiencing homelessness in the first place as well as ensuring that those  youth who do experience homelessness have clear and effective pathways back to their families of origin or to economic self-sufficiency the District can ensure that that young people are on positive trajectories towards adulthood. Not everyone agrees that these investments are worthwhile however, so we need YOU to get involved, spread the word, and tell our elected officials that TOGETHER WE CAN END YOUTH HOMELESSNESS!

You can enter our photo campaign to raise awareness about youth homelessness in the District here

If you want to go beyond sending in a picture, join our advocacy action team here to receive updates/alerts for policy and community advocacy actions.

Also check out ALL OF OUR ACTIVITIES during the month of November in honor of National Homeless Youth Awareness Month.

[1] Ibid.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Burt, Martha (2007).  Understanding Homeless Youth: Numbers, Characteristics, Multi-System Involvement and Intervention Options. Testimony before the US House Committee on Ways and Means.
[4] US Census Bureau (2011). State & County QuickFacts.
[5] True Colors fund report
[6] For more information on models please see the National Network for Youth Recommendations for Systems Enhancement found at: