Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Youth Homelessness: A Byproduct of DC Neglect

Recent media coverage of child and family homelessness has expressed a newfound outrage concerning the number of children living in homeless shelters here in the District. Add to this that DCPS counted 2, 453 homeless children/youth in that system and you may think there is something new and terribly wrong going on in the city. However, while it is terribly wrong that thousands of youth and children are homeless, unfortunately this is by no means a new phenomenon. The counts vary from year to year, but these kinds of numbers of homeless youth and children both at the DC General shelter and in DCPS are par for the course - particularly in the last 3 years. DCAYA has frequently discussed who these kids are and how family interventions offer hope for the prevention of youth homelessness. But since this seems to be a hot topic, allow us to turn to some ideas on how we can facilitate a system- wide approach to ameliorating this issue.

First and foremost, we cannot continue to focus on just the shelter issue. Yes, too many individuals and families are in shelter housing at the moment, but overcrowding and horrid conditions at shelters are a symptom of a much larger failure in safety net service provision. If we are going to be embarrassed and outraged by the conditions we force homeless children, individuals and families into, we need to be just as outraged by the lack of affordable housing and comprehensive service provision that would have prevented homelessness in the first place.

Second, we need to acknowledge that regardless of how or where services/interventions occur, homeless children and youth are all “our” kids. This means that we cannot simply pass them off from agency to agency or program to program and think about them as someone else’s problem. Regardless of how a young person comes to be in need, opportunities can lift a young person up from crisis, while a lack of opportunities can further compound and extend problems. Furthermore, homeless young people are in severe need of supports and services to get them back on track. This is exactly where the need for homeless young people to be “our” kids rather than “their” kids is the most crucial.

For example, we know the role of systems of care play in preventing homelessness is a large one. Our data suggests as much as 40% of the homeless youth population has had previous contact with the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) or the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services (DYRS). However, we also know that unemployment is another major driver of youth homelessness and it comes as no surprise that homeless youth in DC were typically unemployed (80%) as reported in our 2011 homeless youth survey. It is not too far a jump to assume then, that many of the same youth that exit systems of care also struggle with finding employment. But, when we worry about system involvement and unemployment as two separate issues, we just start passing young people through different systems rather than wrapping supports around them in a comprehensive way. This is a surefire way not to recognize positive outcomes like housing stability and self-sufficiency.

So, where should the city be headed if we really want system-wide reform? What’s needed is for DC to establish a “Central Youth Office” – a coordinating body of some kind that can take whole-hearted responsibility for the realities and demands of this overlapping youth population; to collect and analyze cross-cutting data, develop programs in tandem with other agencies, with clear needs and goals defined for youth and young families. Several cities across the nation have already established such offices and the District should join them and we could also use the model used by our new coordinating entity for education, Raise DC.

It is worth mentioning that numerous District agencies were present at the recent Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) meeting, and were active participants in a discussion focused on how to improve coordination of services and prevention programming to combat youth homelessness in the District. This is a good start but further coordination could do even more. As we head into this year’s budget and performance oversight hearings, please be sure to take a moment and hit on the importance of cross system supports and coordination. Until we’re working collectively and thinking in terms of prevention and intervention across systems and supports, the root causes that lead to youth homelessness will remain. Council can play a major role in compelling and overseeing cross system collaboration- so implore them on behalf of DC’s most valued asset: children and youth.

This blog was written by DCAYA Policy Analyst Susan Ruether. If you would like to receive more information about youth homelessness in DC please feel free to contact Susan at or visit the DCAYA website to learn about the issues effecting our Districts youth.

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