Wednesday, November 26, 2014

To Reduce Family Homelessness, DC Needs to Focus on Young Parents

Photo taken by Tina Dela Rosa of Charmia Carolina and her child.
We end our Youth Homelessness Awareness Month blog series with a guest post from policy analyst Kate Coventry of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

According to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, 661 families applied for shelter during the FY2013 Hypothermia Season and the number is predicted to grow to 820 families during FY2015. Of those families experiencing homelessness, nearly half are headed by a parent 24 years or younger.

An increasing number of DC’s homeless families are young, with a parent 24 years old or younger. These families face unique challenges, because the parents often lack a high school diploma or GED, have limited work experience, and have never had their own home. Addressing the huge increase in family homelessness in DC will require focusing on these families.

No one knows exactly why this is happening, but a clear factor is DC’s uneven economic recovery that has left many residents, including young people, behind. Young workers face a 16 percent unemployment rate, nearly double that of older workers. And wages have fallen since 2008 for residents other than those with a college degree. These worsening job realities and DC’s increasing lack of affordable housing undoubtedly are making it difficult for young families to make ends meet.

Other cities are finding that young parents need tailored services. Like the District, Hennepin County (Minneapolis), helps most families exit shelter with Rapid Re-housing, a program that combines rental assistance and case management for generally up to 12 months. But because they found the program does not work well for youth-headed households, they are piloting a program with more intensive case management, life skills training, and education on how to support their child’s development. Additionally, young families can remain in the program for up to 24 months.

It is likely that young families in the District also need special help. Yet it is not clear what added interventions are needed, because the city has not done much to assess the circumstances of youth-headed homeless families. In April, a coalition of community organizations, including DCAYA and DCFPI, recommended that DC release data on the Rapid Re-housing outcomes for young parents, but this still has not happened.

As the District takes more steps to reduce family homelessness, we recommend the District do more to understand why so many young families are seeking shelter, and then review its assessment tool and case management services to make sure they are sensitive to the special circumstances of young families.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute conducts research and public education on budget and tax issues in the District of Columbia, with a particular emphasis on issues that affect low- and moderate-income residents. Kate Coventry is a DCFPI policy analyst who focuses particularly on TANF benefits, Interim Disability Assistance (IDA), and homelessness.

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Oh SNAP! What can you really buy for $4.15?

Photo found on the USDA webpage "Supplementary Food Assistance Program"

On the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) webpage there is a colorful picture of a mom holding a baby and picking up a red apple with bright green veggies in the background. Under the picture there is a description, “SNAP offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities.” SNAP, formerly known as the federal Food Stamp Program, is supposed to act as a safety net for financially struggling families who cannot afford food.

Our friends at the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project took on the “SNAP Challenge" a week long educational exercise where participants can only spend $4.15* a day on food, simulating a SNAP food budget.

The Playtime Project staff shared with us their reflections during their in-office "SNAP Challenge":

Grocery item #1: Oodles of Noodles, $0.67

I am doing the Food Stamp challenge for lunch this week and was not prepared for how impractical it is to eat lunch for $2.50. I went to the grocery store and looked at a cucumber for some veggies...more than $2.00. I went to the canned bean aisle. Again, most of the beans were more than $2.00! I got the beans thinking I would divide it up for a couple meals with rice. The next morning as I was dashing out the door, I realized I needed to season my bland lunch so I sauteed a slice of onion and bell pepper. If I really wanted to save money, I would have to buy dry beans and bulk to soak them. I don't feel like I have the time and patience to do that now, so how practical is it for single parents in homeless shelters to soak beans and saute vegetables on their way out the door?

As I looked around the store feeling more and more deflated about my options, I could "get" in a more visceral way, how much sense it makes to buy "Oodles of Noodles," chips and soda to keep bellies full. It takes energy and time and creative thinking to cook healthy food on a budget and I could feel myself giving up and giving in to what is more practical for a busy live. It is easy to take for granted how many choices money can buy.
- Jamila Larson, Executive Director and Co-founder

Grocery Item #2: Elbow Macaroni, $2.88

As I think over the past couple of days during the Food Stamp Challenge, I have a greater appreciation for the quality and abundance of food I have been privileged to have over the years. Shopping on $22.50 for the week was difficult. While I usually purchase numerous fresh fruit and vegetables, I realized that on a food stamp budget that just wouldn't be possible. Instead I purchased items that I felt would keep me full for the week. That meant a lot of carbs (with rice and pasta), and canned chili/beans. The items I bought did not provide a lot of diversity for meals, I was going to have rice or noodles for the next week.
- Joel Schwarz, Development Manager 

Grocery Item #3: Dried Bag of Black Beans, $1.72

As a employee for a direct service and advocacy organization working with families experiencing homelessness, I consider myself to be relatively well informed about the diverse and broad issues affecting the homeless population. That being said, participating in the SNAP challenge has given me a greater appreciation for the daily challenges that living in poverty brings. The foods which were most affordable and within my budget for the week were those that required a lot of preparation - a bag of dried beans, rice, pasta, and soup. I am fortunate to live in a house with an appropriate kitchen and 9-5 job that afforded me the time and resources to make those decisions. I'm also a single, young professional without children, whose needs I would also need to meet. It is hard to imagine a family that might have the time and energy to make the same food choices that I had made. Week after week, month after month, it is easy to understand that individuals and families would prioritize getting children to and from school, after school programs, searching for an apartment or job, and other necessary tasks over elaborate meal preparations.

It is no surprise that children who experience homelessness go hungry at 2 times the rate of their housed peers. Obesity and nutritional deficiencies are common among the children we serve, but I find that it is the limited choice in food and nutrition over lack of will that contributes to the problem.
- Kelli Beyer, Communications and Outreach Manager

*SNAP benefits are affected by a person’s income, number of family members, additional assistance benefits, and a variety of other factors that require complex calculation. $4.15 represents the average daily benefit.

This piece is part of our month long blog series for "Homeless Youth Awareness Month." Continue reading to learn more about the challenges homeless youth face in the District. A special thank you to Homeless Children's Playtime Project for sharing their experiences with us during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.  Read the Playtime Project's blog to learn more about their ongoing work to bring healthy play experiences to children experiencing homelessness. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sex for Shelter

Photo Courtesy of Fair Girls 
The following blog is part of the DCAYA Youth Homelessness Awareness Month blog series

People often place homelessness and sex trafficking into two different buckets of vulnerability. In reality, these issues are often one in the same, as homeless children are sexually exploited at an alarmingly high rate. When they do not have a safe place to sleep or trusting adults to turn to, young people are forced to find a way to survive. Many times, the only currency they have to offer are their own bodies. Sometimes adults force or coerce a young person into the sex trade – sometimes their situations do – either way, this form of sexual exploitation is mentally and physically damaging to a minor’s well-being. To add insult to injury, in DC, these minors are arrested and prosecuted for engaging in unlawful sexual behavior; going from one system of control established by a pimp, to another system of control brought on by a police officer.

On November 18, DC Council will vote on a bill to change this practice. The 'Safe Harbor' bill will ensure minors get care, not punishment, when trying to survive on the streets. Below is an excerpt from our one-pager with a FAQs section that addresses common misperceptions about minors and the sex trade.

It is fitting that this bill is being voted on during Youth Homelessness Awareness Month. It is time we stop arresting and prosecuting vulnerable children who need basic necessitates: food, shelter, and a caring adult.

“When I was a kid being sex trafficked, I was threatened with arrest, not refered to services. DC law has to change. Kids shouldn’t be arrested for being sex trafficked or survival sex.”

- Kiana
 College Student, Survivor Advocate at FAIR Girls DC 

“Our Safe Harbor law has been a tremendous tool as we combat this horrific crime. With the help of service providers, we focus on the rescue and recovery of young victims caught up in the sex trade.”
 - Anita Alvarez
   State’s Attorney, Cook County, IL

“As a Law Enforcement Officer, it is our sworn duty to    protect the public, and that includes our children who are the most vulnerable.  Safe Harbor laws acknowledge that children, who are not adults, do not have the maturity to give consent to be trafficked.  Safe Harbor laws help us put the real perpetrators in jail.”
- Retired Officer Dan Goldsmith, California State Investigator


Q: What is child sex trafficking and survival sex?

A: The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) defines a sex trafficking victim as any child under 18 who is engaging in commercial sex acts.  Survival sex occurs when a child engages in sexual acts in exchange for food, shelter, or other basic needs, whether or not they have a pimp. Under the TVPA, minors engaging in survival sex should be treated as trafficking victims.

Q: Isn’t arrest & prosecution a good way for victims to get services?

A: No, instead victims need to be able to voluntarily access services through police referrals — police training on how to do this is included in the bill. A jail cell or a courtroom are not the most effective ways to present services to victims of child sex trafficking. Victims need to have the time and space to commit to accepting services in order for the services to be effective.  As Andrea Powell, Executive Director of Fair Girls says, “we’ve never had any victim tell us no to services … if they are asked correctly.”

Q: But don’t we need to arrest these kids and threaten them with prosecution so they give information about their pimps?

A: No, arresting victims of child sex trafficking will only lead them to distrust, be hostile toward, and withhold information from authorities. When a victim has the opportunity to voluntarily choose services, the young person is more cooperative in a police investigation.


Photo Courtesy of Fair Girls 

Before the vote on Tuesday, November 19th 2014, reach out to DC Councilmembers through their social media channels. View sample tweets and councilmember twitter handles for guidance as we work together to pass this significant and groundbreaking legislation to protect victims of child sex trafficking. 

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Homeless Youth Awareness Month Blog Series

What comes to mind when you think of November?

Sweater season, warm apple cider, the crackling of a bonfire in a backyard, the smell of Thanksgiving dinner wafting through a home with the sound of family in the background …

For me, many warm memories come to mind when I think about the season.

However, November is also National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, a potent reminder of the stark realities our DC youth face.

This time last year, DCAYA released a Bold Strategy to End Youth Homelessness. The Bold Strategy was created in collaboration with Covenant House DC, Latin American Youth Center, Sasha Bruce Youthwork, StandUp for Kids DC, Wanda Alston Foundation, and the Washington Interfaith Network. The strategy offered a holistic solution to solving the varied problems which lead youth to becoming trapped in the cycle of homelessness.

Thanks to the ongoing dedication of DCAYA’s community of advocates, the Bold Strategy was adopted by the DC Council, written into legislation, and passed as the Homeless Youth Amendment Act. Unfortunately, the legislation did not receive adequate funding to meet all of the intended initiatives.

Where does this leave DC’s homeless young people?

For Homeless Youth Awareness Month, DCAYA is launching a blog series to address the impact of the DC government underfunding critical resources for homeless youth. Follow the month-long series to understand how a family reunification program, additional street outreach, and other youth-focused services would help stabilize a young person’s life.

While the funding was cut short, what advocates are able to do with the resulting funds is astounding.
  • There are 15 new emergency beds to be available specifically for homeless youth. 
  • Advocates and providers will conduct annual Point-In-Time Studies to gather updated data on youth experiencing homelessness.

So enjoy November. Enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner and warm apple cider, but remember your 4,000+ young neighbors who are struggling to find a safe place to sleep or a warm dinner to fill their bellies. Together, as a community, we need DC to fully fund life-saving resources for homeless youth.


Maggie Riden
Executive Director of DCAYA

Click to donate to DCAYA’s advocacy efforts to end youth homelessness.

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As Hypothermia Season is upon us, we want to remind everyone that if you see anyone outside when it’s 32 degrees or below don’t keep walking, take action and call the Hypothermia Hotline 1 (800) 535-7252. You may end up saving a life.