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.  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).
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. Using that math, as many as 7,354 District youth could be experiencing homelessness annually. 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. 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. 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.
 Burt, Martha (2007). Understanding Homeless Youth: Numbers, Characteristics, Multi-System Involvement and Intervention Options. Testimony before the
House Committee on Ways and Means.
 US Census Bureau (2011). State & County QuickFacts. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/11000.html
 True Colors fund report
 For more information on models please see the National Network for Youth Recommendations for Systems Enhancement found at: http://www.nn4youth.org/system/files/NN4Y%20Recommendations%20REV%205-24-12-1%20copy.pdf