Youth experiencing homelessness are frequently described as hidden or invisible. The thought is that they are challenging to identify as they do not tend to make themselves known by seeking out assistance from service providers and systems.
However, it has become increasingly apparent over the past decade as we have come to better understand youth homelessness that this is largely due to inadvertent blindness of our public serving systems. We simply have not been asking the right questions within our systems to allow youth to share their housing needs. Youth homelessness should be visible, but it requires the commitment of and collaboration among all public serving systems to make it so.
Youth experiencing homelessness come into contact with all the public systems serving children, youth and families. This has been made clear in Maryland, where most of the continuums of care (CoCs) across the state come together as part of a state-funded project, Youth REACH MD, to conduct a survey and census of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness. That helps communities and policymakers better understand their experiences so they can better tackle the issue of youth homelessness in Maryland.
Each CoC brings local partners together with youth to develop and implement an outreach and surveying strategy to reach as many youth as possible within the community who are under the age of 25, not in the physical care or custody of a parent or legal guardian, and lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. Every year the Youth REACH Youth Count has been conducted, youth experiencing homelessness have reported high levels of system involvement, particularly within the juvenile and adult justice systems.
In 2018, 38% reported being currently enrolled in school (over half of them were enrolled in high school), 27% reported having stayed in a shelter or motel in the last two months, 20% reported having spent time in foster care, 28% reported having spent at least one night in juvenile detention and 38% reported having spent at least one night in jail.
These statistics highlight several key issues we cannot ignore if we truly want to end and prevent homelessness for youth. First and foremost, youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness are within our public serving systems. These systems represent key opportunities to identify and support youth to end or prevent their experiences of homelessness.
Systems must develop coordinated approach
However, it is the responsibility of each system to do the work of identifying youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness and connecting them to the supports they need. To do this effectively, collaboration among the various public serving systems is essential. Each of these systems — education, child welfare, homeless services, juvenile justice, criminal justice, health, behavioral health, and others — need to be active partners in addressing youth homelessness at the local, state and federal levels. This includes being a part of collaborative strategic planning efforts, establishing effective communication channels among systems and providers, and sharing information and data.
Youth experiencing homelessness also have needs that cross systems. In the 2018 Youth REACH MD Youth Count, youth reported needing a variety of supports beyond housing to help them get and maintain safe and sufficient housing. These included nutritional assistance (38%), job training (36%), transportation assistance (27%), education supports (24%), health care (22%) and more. This is only further reason that public serving systems must collaborate and tap into each other’s expertise and programming to provide a more effective, holistic response to youth homelessness.
Before youth homelessness, children’s mental health services was the first issue that needed system collaboration and coordination across public systems. The System of Care framework is an established, evidence-based framework for cross-system collaboration designed to reduce a siloed approach. It provides a detailed roadmap for how to create “a broad flexible array of effective services and supports for a defined multi-system involved population, which is organized into a coordinated network, integrates care planning and care management across multiple levels, is culturally and linguistically competent, builds meaningful partnerships with families and with youth at service delivery, management and policy levels, has supportive management and policy infrastructure, and is data-driven.”
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to develop a coordinated approach across systems to end and prevent youth homelessness. The System of Care principles and lessons learned from decades of evaluation can be used to guide implementation of the plans for a coordinated community response to youth homelessness that are starting to be developed by organizations like the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the National Network for Youth.
Ending and preventing youth homelessness requires broad system change and collaboration, with all public serving systems at the table, particularly those with the highest levels of youth involvement — the juvenile and criminal justice systems. We must do better at identifying youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness across systems and connecting them with the supports they need, regardless of which system a youth first comes into contact with.
We owe it to the youth to ensure our systems are being a support and not a barrier to youth meeting their needs so that they can rapidly end any experiences of homelessness and prevent it from happening in the future. This increased system collaboration will not just benefit youth experiencing homelessness, but it will help us better serve all children, youth and families who come into contact with our public serving systems. Addressing youth homelessness is an opportunity for all systems to learn from each other and work together to better meet the needs of those they serve.
All systems have this responsibility
The first step is for public serving systems to start asking the right questions. Having the information to better understand the issue and identify youth for whom housing may be a particular need catalyzes systemic action and partnership. Youth REACH MD, as one of Maryland’s first attempts to start asking these questions, has served as a catalyst for further public system involvement and collaboration around addressing youth homelessness at the local and state levels.
After Youth REACH MD published its first findings, Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services worked to modify its needs assessment to start identifying youth who might be experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability. Not only will this help to identify housing as a possible need for youth within Maryland’s juvenile justice system, it will provide the department and its partners with data of youth who are experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness within the juvenile justice system.
This will assist the department in better understanding where efforts are most needed to address youth homelessness being identified within their system. Youth REACH data is also catalyzing new local partnerships and collaboration to conduct the survey and respond to its findings, improved state policies like Maryland’s Ending Youth Homelessness Act that passed in 2018, and Maryland’s first statewide cross-system symposium on youth homelessness.
There is no one public system that is charged with the responsibility for addressing youth homelessness. Rather, it is the responsibility of all systems to work together to address it. It is the need for collaboration among all systems that may be the greatest challenge, but also the greatest opportunity in the fight to end and prevent youth homelessness. We must work together to begin asking the right questions and improve collaboration among public serving systems so that wherever a youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness comes into contact with service providers, they are identified and connected with the supports they need to end or prevent their experience of homelessness.
Amanda Miller is the housing and homelessness program manager at The Institute for Innovation & Implementation at the University of Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore. She received her BA in psychology from the University of Chicago and her MSW from the University of Maryland School of Social Work.