Sasha Bruce Youth
Sasha Bruce Youth Work

This past week Washington D.C. made a collaborative effort to better understand and respond to the homeless youth crisis, conducting its first-ever count of all homeless and unstably-housed youth. This includes anyone under the age of 25 who is not supported by a family or in physical custody of the District.

The count, a week-long survey administered by Service providers and city staff, ran from August 17 to August 25 and included youth and young adults who are couch surfing, literally homeless, in emergency shelters, in transitional living programs or temporarily housed otherwise.

Prior to this count, the definition of what homelessness is and is not had been inadequate to fully account for young people.

“I don’t think anyone has really had a clear number of how many youth were in this [18-24] category because they didn’t meet the requirements before,” said Madye Henson, President and CEO of Covenant House Washington. “They either had to be in a shelter or without housing.”

With a broader understanding of who makes up this group of people, service providers can rely on a more data driven approach to determine how to best serve the homeless youth population. The hope of the youth count is that it will allow advocates and service providers to identify homeless youth by the more expansive McKinney-Vento definition.

The McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act of 1987 is the only major federal response to homelessness. It funds shelters, housing programs, school transportation and admission for children, and more. The act defines homeless as “an individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; an individual or family with a nighttime residence that is a public or private place not ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings; an individual or family living in a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designated to provide temporary living arrangements; an individual who resided in a shelter or place not meant for human habitation and who is exiting an institution where he or she temporarily resided; and/or an individual or family who will imminently lose their housing, has no subsequent residence identified, and lacks the resources or support networks needed to obtain other permanent housing.”

By more broadly identifying youth that make up this little-known segment of the homeless population, the District will be better able to expand and tailor the current service systems.

Right now, Covenant House and Sasha Bruce are the only comprehensive and long-term emergency housing services for young people in the D.C. Metro area.

“There are almost no other designated spaces for teens,” Henson said.

Rashid Mills, a 23 year old homeless youth who has been in and out of Covenant House shelters and programs since 2011, knows firsthand that there are not enough spaces for people his age.

The limited support system offered to young people relies on others aging out of the shelter to make room for new youth, according to Mills. He recalled being told that he would get into one youth transitional program if the other person before him didn’t show up.

“If they had the shelter space, then they’d know how many homeless youth there were. We need shelters to be able to count the number of youth [seeking shelter],” Mills said. “But it’s so hard to get in, people don’t even try anymore.”

At age 23, Mills isn’t ready to go into adult programs, and neither are his friends. He explained that they are more inclined to go to a shelter with people in their age range because it’s fun. It doesn’t feel like a shelter, it feels like a young person’s home.

Additionally, youth programs try to offer a hands-on intervention approach geared towards helping young people get on their feet before they enter the cycle of chronic homelessness.

Only a year away from not qualifying as a youth in the District, Mills still wants this support.

“It’s like they’re saying, you’re growing at 17 and 18, but at 22 we don’t care about you anymore. If you can’t get yourself stable in that period of time, it’s like you’re left for dead,” he said.

When asked what his ideal youth shelter and support system looked like, Mills said it would be clean and private – with enough staff and space to serve the specific needs of each young person’s situation. Mills imagined a shelter where he could be surrounded by peers and have access to case management, financial training, and job readiness programs. He also suggested a higher age cap.

While the District follows suit with the rest of the country in conducting an annual Point-in-Time Count (PIT) of its general population, homeless youth are vastly underrepresented. Of the 7,300 people expected to be on the streets on any given night, the 2015 PIT Count assumed that only seven of those were unaccompanied minors.

But Mills can prove otherwise without leaving his neighborhood.

“Five of my best friends are all couch surfing. They don’t have their own place; they don’t have their name on the lease.” Mills said. “People haven’t come to terms with the fact that they’re homeless because it’s just the way it’s been.”

Many young people don’t recognize what homelessness is. It can take months for them to accept the situation they are in before they make themselves available to receive services and be counted. Without a proper count, service organizations are unable to provide the necessary capacity.

Homeless residents under the age of 25 are often excluded from the count because they find themselves housed, but in unstable situations.

“Think of how many people just aged out of their parents houses. They’re not in a stable position to be able to get an apartment. What do you think ends up happening to them? They end up homeless,” Mills said.

During this time of economic hardship, households are being stretched and young people are often being asked what they’re bringing to the table. There are immense pressures to contribute.

“They look at me like I’m not making a contribution to the household, so why am I in their house,” Mills said. “You don’t want to stay somewhere you’re not wanted.”

To get the most realistic count of young people experiencing homelessness, Covenant House aimed to survey each of the young people in its residential programs, as well as those who come onsite for classes and those met during street outreach.

As Street Sense went to press, Covenant House reported the completion of 67 surveys and expected to meet its goal of surveying 100 young people.

Unfortunately, some of the most vulnerable people making up the District’s homeless youth population may not know about the count at all. When asked if he’d go in to be surveyed, Mills responded, “Go in where?”

This may be the root of the crisis: youth want to show their need but they don’t know how.

With the count in its first year and the number of homeless youth historically difficult to quantify, there is a lot to be learned regarding best outreach methods for engaging this population.

“Any point you’re doing [the survey], you will get some representative number and it starts the process,” Henson said.