Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Leaving Our Youth Out in the Cold

Every year the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) creates a “Winter Plan” to meet DC’s legal obligation to shelter all residents during nights of hypothermia risk (when the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit). This year we advocated alongside many members for a clearer strategy to address the needs of unaccompanied children in this plan.

Progress: Coordination and 6 new beds

There has been progress made in this effort. Multiple systems, specifically the ICH, DHS and CFSA, have dedicated the organizational resources to engage in this complex dialogue fraught with federal requirements and local mandates.

Also, DHS has committed to developing 6 additional emergency beds for children that will be up and running for the rapidly approaching winter months. This brings the total number of emergency beds for unaccompanied children to 12.

Remaining Issue: A Clearly Articulated Strategy

The progress has hit a sticking point though. Unlike the family and adult singles system, there has yet to be a clearly articulated strategy to ensure an adequate system of response and safe housing in non-standard (but likely) circumstances.

The three foreseeable non-standard circumstances that we are most concerned about are:
  • If the existing community based slots reach capacity 
  • If evidence of abuse and neglect remains undetermined, thus limiting the likelihood of timely intervention by CFSA 
  • If a child simply refuses to return home
On the third point it’s important to understand that youth are kicked out or run from home for many reasons; and just because there isn’t immediate evidence of abuse or neglect, does not mean ‘home’ is a safe place to be. In addition, youth do not go to a shelter as a first or even second resort. Youth arrive at emergency shelters because they have exhausted all other resources and being home is no longer an option. 

Given the goal of the Winter Plan, we need a simple and clear response strategy that frontline shelter staff or other first responders can easily and quickly navigate. They need to know who to call should the youth system reach capacity. Last year, one member organization had to turn away 150 youth from February to May. This is simply not okay. With a clear protocol in place, the responding agency or partner will be able to quickly route a young person to a system equipped with the knowledge and skills to pinpoint a young persons needs and determine next steps. An adult shelter is not the place to do this.

Options: Emergency-Funds for Community Providers or a Lead Agency

Two options are tenable. First, the District could establish an emergency reserve fund that would allow community based providers the financial flexibility to respond rapidly to provide shelter while logistical details are clarified. This response model mirrors the District’s use of motels or emergency overflow locations in the family or individual adult system.

Secondly, we could identify a lead agency with the resources and expertise to triage the situation, quickly respond, and ensure the child is safe until a longer-term intervention is identified and executed.

Bottom Line: Make a responsible plan

Regardless of which organization or agency is designated to lead in non-standard circumstances, the Winter Plan must clearly articulate a strategy to adequately meet unaccompanied children’s needs. The ICH, DHS, CFSA, DYRS, and the Runaway and Homeless Youth Providers must ensure that a child is never left out on a dangerously cold night simply because we were unable to plan for the inevitable. Winter is coming, and we need to prepare to ensure the safety of our District’s children and youth.

Maggie Riden, Executive Director of DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, testified at the Winter Plan Oversight Roundtable urging city council to clearly define and implement a plan for unaccompanied children. As a member of the ICH board, Maggie advocates for resources on behalf of unstably housed youth in the District.  

More on the story:

Winter’s Coming. Is the City Ready to Shelter Its Homeless?

Winter Plan Roundtable: Rough Season Ahead for Families and Youth

Advocates Testify on Behalf of Homeless Youth

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