Opinion

Diversion: A Necessary Approach for Ending Youth Homelessness

Homeless: Women Lying On Beds In Homeless Shelter

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Youth homelessness is a national crisis.

Does that seem like a dramatic statement?  It’s not. About 7% of the total homeless population is comprised of unaccompanied youth under the age of 25, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Even more shockingly, a recent national study by Voices of Youth Count at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall found that about 10% of all youth age 18–25 experienced some form of homelessness over a 12-month period.

Right now, there is a national movement to end youth homelessness by 2020. Starting in 2016, the federal government funded a series of demonstration programs to support innovative solutions to make youth homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring.  One of the first 10 communities to receive this funding was Austin, Texas, and I am honored to say that I have spent the last three years working alongside other leaders in this community to bring youth homelessness to functional zero.

Liz Schoenfeld (headshot)

Liz Schoenfeld

Although many of the underlying causes and correlates of youth homelessness remain the same, their manifestation is contextually dependent and shaped by the local environment, culture, and policies.  As a result, youth homelessness looks different from community to community. In Austin, 76% of youth experiencing homelessness have a history of involvement with juvenile justice, the child welfare system, or both. This rate is disproportionately higher than what is observed across other communities in the United States (nationally, rates average around 56%).

Having a clear understanding of the unique needs of youth experiencing homelessness in our community proved critical as we went about the process of designing effective programming.  Because so many youth reported a history of systems involvement, we knew that we needed to develop strong partnerships with juvenile justice and the child welfare system to reduce the number of youth discharged to homelessness.  As a result, one of the programs we developed was a diversion program, designed to divert youth from literal homelessness or the need for intensive housing services (like rapid rehousing or permanent supportive housing). By partnering with both the county and state juvenile justice systems, the child welfare systems and our local school districts, we can swim upstream and identify youth who are at risk of experiencing homelessness.  

But what does diversion look like in practice?  In short, it all comes down to youth’s pre-existing relationships (or “natural supports”).  Prior to enrolling in the diversion program, youth often believe that they have explored and exhausted all of their possible housing options. They’ve reached out to their friends and family members, and no one is willing or able to offer help. In reality, they have approached all of the natural supports that they think might be willing to help.  

The goal of the diversion program is to help youth think more broadly and identify natural supports that might not be top-of-mind (e.g., distant relatives, childhood friends). The diversion team helps the youth come up with a list of individuals who might offer support, assesses youth’s preferences, reaches out to their preferred natural supports, screens for any safety concerns, and negotiates the terms under which this individual might provide the youth with a place to stay. Because of funding restrictions, the diversion program cannot help youth contribute to the cost of rent, but the program can assist with other costs (like groceries or transportation), thereby offsetting the cost of rent.  

In addition, program staff are able to connect youth and their natural supports to community resources — such as counseling, employment services, or educational programming — to help meet their non-financial needs and alleviate the stress of the transition. Once the youth and their identified natural support have negotiated a satisfactory arrangement, the diversion team checks in with them on a regular basis to provide ongoing support and to ensure that any emergent needs are met.

Admittedly, the diversion program is still very new.  We are learning and iterating on a near-daily basis. That said, the more we learn about the scope of youth homelessness in our community, the characteristics of the youth, and the effectiveness of the program, the more certain we become that diversion is a necessary tool in our arsenal to prevent and end youth homelessness.

Liz Schoenfeld is the director of research & evaluation at LifeWorks. She leads Austin/Travis County’s local evaluation for the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program.

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