Nearly 47,000 Youth and Children Homeless and Apart From Family

December 2, 2013

We who live in the District of Columbia have been engaged in a lively discussion (euphemism) about the 2013-14 Winter Plan for homeless youth and children who aren’t with a parent or other adult caregiver.

Now we have some first-time-ever figures on homeless unaccompanied young people. The most detailed are nationwide. But we also get totals for states, the District and communities of several sorts whose totals were highest.

The figures are all part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, which reflects the results of last January’s point-in-time counts, i.e. the one-night censuses conducted by Continuums of Care (the technical name for the planning entities in communities that receive homeless assistance grants).

Generally speaking, we need to take PIT figures with a grain of salt because much depends on how each CoC goes about conducting its census.

And whatever their methods, it’s reasonable to believe that the counts miss some homeless people whose only shelter is what they manage to find — or create — for themselves.

We need also to recall that the legislation governing the HUD grants — and thus the data collected — generally excludes people, including children and youth, who are living in motels or doubled-up with friends or relatives because they can’t afford a home of their own.

Perhaps we should add another grain of salt for the homeless youth count because CoCs never had to do it before. And they faced new challenges.

For example, the places they’re used to looking for homeless people aren’t where they’re likely to find homeless kids, as an Urban Institute assessment of homeless youth counts says.

And, of course, many of the kids don’t want to be found because they fear they’ll be returned to the families they fled or put into foster care.

CoCs addressed the challenges in different ways — some more aggressively and strategically than others, the Institute’s report suggests.

So with all these caveats, here’s what the AHAR tells us.

At some point last January, there were 46,924 unaccompanied children and youth up to the age of 24.* They represented about 7.7% of all the homeless people counted.

By far and away the largest number were in the 18 to 24 age range — 40,727 or 86.8% of the whole subgroup. Nearly two-thirds (66.2%) of all youth, so defined, were unaccompanied.

All but 4.5% of the children counted were in a family “household.” Which leaves 6,197 who’d left their families or been kicked out of their homes.

Half the unaccompanied children and youth were found unsheltered, i.e., in a park, bus station or, in HUD’s inimitable phrasing, some other place “not ordinarily designed for or used as a sleeping accommodation for human beings.”

The unsheltered rate for unaccompanied children was higher — 59.2%. This is far higher than the unsheltered rate for all people counted, by about 24%, as well as somewhat higher than the rate for unaccompanied youth.

Here in the District, the count reportedly turned up a total of 164 unaccompanied children and youth. No breakouts in the AHAR.

The District’s CoC report to HUD, however, identifies six unaccompanied children and says all of them were in emergency shelter. Only eighteen unaccompanied youth in the 18 to 24 age bracket were unsheltered on the count night, it says.

I’d like to think this is accurate, but have my doubts. That’s all they are, however. So I’ll forgo elaboration.

I understand discussion will soon be under way to improve the District’s homeless unaccompanied child and youth count. It will be interesting to see what next year’s figures look like.

In the meantime, the top priority is to ensure that every one of the unaccompanied young people, however many there are, have shelter or housing this winter. The rest of the year too.

* The AHAR defines the subgroup as “under the age of 25.” And the graphs identify youth as “18-24.” However, both the text and HUD PIT guidance use the phrase “to 24.” So it seems more likely than not that the PIT homeless youth counts did not include 24-year-olds.

Final DC Winter Plan for Homeless Children Passes, With No Shelter Guarantee

November 14, 2013

The District of Columbia’s Interagency Council on Homelessness met yesterday to again consider the part of the 2013-14 Winter Plan that’s supposed to address the shelter and service needs of homeless young adults and minor-age children.

This time, it approved the draft, as-is and with virtually no discussion.

More newsworthy perhaps is that it rejected, almost unanimously, an amendment that would have committed the District to ensuring that “no homeless youth is in danger of hypothermia this winter season,” even if the resources identified in the plan prove insufficient.

Two other parts of the Winter Plan — those that identify shelter capacities for homeless individual men and women — include a similar commitment.

The real sticking point was the basis for the commitment, stated in the sentence that preceded it: “The right to shelter during a hypothermia alert applies to all District residents who cannot access other housing arrangements, including homeless youth.”

Those who’ve been following this issue will recall that the first iteration of the youth-children part said nothing about what the District would do to provide shelter in freezing-cold weather for children under 18 who aren’t with an adult family member.

The ICH approved the Winter Plan, but contingent on a genuine plan for unaccompanied minor-age children. The second iteration didn’t pass either — and as I said at the time, with good reason.

Like the first, it reflected the Department of Human Services’ novel view that the Homeless Services Reform Act, which establishes a legal right to shelter in “severe weather conditions,” doesn’t protect unaccompanied minor-age children, except in the rare cases when they’re legally emancipated.

DHS still takes that view. An open letter to the community issued late last month grudgingly acknowledges that “some advocates believe that the District’s Right to Shelter legislation extends to unaccompanied children who have run away from home for issues other than abuse and neglect.”

Unsaid, but obvious is that DHS believes otherwise. The meeting confirmed that it speaks for the Gray administration. City Administrator Allen Lew, who chairs the ICH, objected to the amendment because it would establish “an unsustainable right to shelter.”

In other words, DHS and the Child and Family Services Administration, which has a lead role in the unaccompanied minor part of the plan, will try to ensure that homeless children are safe, even if it’s not clear they’ve been abused and/or neglected. But if the plan, as written, falls short, well, so be it.

The plan itself reflects the administration’s contorted reading of the law. A child who refuses to return to a “safe available home” with his/her family isn’t homeless, it says.

What staff are supposed to do with children if a preliminary screening indicates they could return is unclear. But the restrictive definition clearly implies that ensuring they have shelter from the elements is, at best, optional.

In other ways, the final draft is far better than its predecessors. But that doesn’t mean it’s as clear and apparently sufficient as the portions of the Winter Plan for homeless men and women who don’t have children with them.

Like the open letter, the draft acknowledges funds in the District’s current budget that will support a new six-bed facility where unaccompanied minor-age children can stay for up to three days without parental or court approval and up to two weeks with approval.

DHS says it expects stays to average a week — and thus to have beds available for 300 more children than the roughly equivalent number that led to high turnaway rates last winter.

The total number of beds should be enough to meet the need, the plan says. What will happen if no bed is available when a homeless child needs one isn’t stated.

And what will happen before the new facility is up and running isn’t either. At this point, a contract to furbish and operate it is still pending. DHS Director David Berns said he thought it would open in January. Agency officials are “talking about interim scenarios.”

But we’ve already had weather cold enough to trigger hypothermia alerts. In fact, one was in effect while the ICH met. Kinda late to be still talking, one might think.

I’m not suggesting the Gray administration will cavalierly let kids freeze to death. But if it were absolutely determined to bring every one of them out of the cold, why does it insist that it has no obligation to do so?

Even if the law were ambiguous — and I don’t think it is — why niggle about it when the moral obligation is crystal clear?

I understand that the drafting committees felt they had to confront complex issues. Children aren’t grownups. We can’t just give them a shelter bed and let them be — or tell them to go on home, regardless of whether they’ll be safe and properly cared for.

But all the Winter Plan is supposed to do — for them, as well as for everyone else in the District — is, as the title page says, “protect the homeless during the winter season” from exposure to the life-threatening risks of freezing-cold temperatures.

If it were enough to trust agencies to muddle through somehow, the law wouldn’t require the District to have one.

DC Department of Human Services Plans to Leave Homeless Children Out in the Cold

October 24, 2013

The District of Columbia’s Interagency Council on Homelessness recently met to discuss, among other things, a revised section of the 2013-14 Winter Plan — specifically, the part that deals with homeless youth and young adults.

Once again, the ICH sent it back to the drawing board. And a good thing too. Because it isn’t merely lacking in specifics, like the family portion I complained about. It’s a tacit denial of a responsibility that everyone, to my knowledge, assumed the District had.

The Department of Human Services now takes the view that the District doesn’t have to provide emergency shelter for homeless children who aren’t with a parent or other caretaker — and that the Winter Plan, therefore, should do nothing to ensure that they have a safe place to stay in freezing-cold weather.

This novel interpretation of the Homeless Services Reform Act is apparently quite new. And it’s not directly stated in the revised section presented to the ICH.

The portion that deals with “unaccompanied minor children” says that the Child and Family Services Administration, i.e., the District’s child welfare agency, will provide 24/7 safety for those it determines were victims of abuse and/or neglect.

Not, I should note, an assurance of immediate shelter or housing.

For children generally, the draft says, “there is not a separate low barrier shelter system in the District” — in other words, no network of publicly-funded providers to ensure that they can get shelter with meeting requirements that might exclude some of them, e.g., showing an ID.

This is a mere statement of fact, not a reason for a “plan” that’s no plan at all.

As the draft indicates, there are two local nonprofits that provide emergency shelter for youth — only one of them for the very young. But, as the prior draft said, “capacity in these programs is limited and slots are quickly filled.”

You’d think DHS would have done something about such an obviously urgent problem. The shortage of shelter beds for kids is hardly new.

The DC Alliance of Youth Advocates alluded to it in a report issued nearly two years ago. Last February, the ICH Youth Sub-Committee reported that 80 youth had been turned away from emergency shelters the month before.

Preliminary data cited by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless indicate that at least 150 minor-age children were turned away during a three-month period, including two months of last year’s official winter season.

DHS could have sounded alarm bells. It’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t have gotten the funds to significantly expand emergency shelter capacity for children who’ve been thrown out of their homes or fled.

Instead, the agency secured a legal analysis to justify the “proposed framework for serving unaccompanied minor children” that’s reflected in the Winter Plan.

Which prompted the Legal Clinic’s own legal analysis.

As it says, the framework asserts that DHS has no legal authority to shelter homeless unaccompanied minors who would otherwise be exposed to dangerously-cold temperatures. Nor, “by extension,” do the providers it contracts with.

This is merely an administrative issue — a way of shucking off responsibility to other agencies, most of which serve on the ICH and, therefore, have responsibilities for a Winter Plan that purports “to protect the lives of those who are homeless.”

The more important claim is that the HSRA doesn’t require the District to shelter unaccompanied minors — except in cases where they’re legally emancipated, i.e., have a court order granting them freedom from parental control (and parents freedom from responsibilities for their care).

The reasoning here is pretty contorted. I’ll leave it to the Legal Clinic to explain the details.

For our purposes, it’s sufficient to say that the legal opinion the framework cites relies on the fact that the HSRA doesn’t specifically say that unaccompanied minor children have a right to shelter — or define the term “individual.”

It does, however, clearly say that the District must provide “appropriate space … for any person in the District who is homeless and cannot access other shelter” whenever “the actual or forecasted temperature, including wind chill factor falls below 32 degrees.”

And there is nothing in the law to justify some of the exclusions the DHS framework establishes for any homeless services to minor-age children. For example, the proposition that they’re not homeless if they “have a house to return to but … no place to stay for the night.”

Say, for the sake of argument, that the law were sufficiently ambiguous raise doubts about the District’s legal obligation to provide children with a safe place to stay when they’d otherwise be on the streets in freezing-cold weather — and highly vulnerable to predators who offer to take them in.

Wouldn’t we still want some of our taxpayer dollars going to remedy a long-standing weakness in the District’s publicly-funded network of shelters, housing and other services for homeless people?

But I’m persuaded that the law isn’t ambiguous on the fundamental issue here. So the real alternative is having our taxpayer dollars wasted in defending the District in a lawsuit for violation of a basic right established in the HSRA — a likely possibility, the Legal Clinic’s brief implies.

But, in the meantime, there will be a lot of young people at unnecessary risk of harm.

The DC Council’s Human Services Committee will hold a hearing on the Winter Plan next Tuesday morning. One can only help that it will firmly reject the pseudo-legalistic evasions and tell the Gray administration to do what it should have done some time ago.

And do it PDQ because, as you may have noticed, it’s getting cold outside.

NOTE: The Legal Clinic tells me that the timeframe for the turn-away estimate is five months, not three, as the source I link to indicates.

What We Know — and Don’t — About Homeless Youth

November 29, 2012

This is the tail end of Homeless Youth Awareness Month, established by Congress in 2007 to make us recognize that we’ve got a lot of young people out in the world on their own who don’t have a safe, stable place to live.

Also to express support for programs to prevent youth homelessness and “provide aid where prevention fails” — easier than passing bills that provide support, I suppose.

Perhaps we’re more aware of homeless youth now. At least, they’ve gotten their own niche in more policy agendas.

Yet we don’t know as much about them as we should. And aren’t doing as much as we should — in part because of what we don’t know, though we know enough to be doing more than we are.

Here then is a brief overview of what we know — and don’t.

How Many Homeless Youth Are There?

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that some 1.7 million children become homeless each year, not including those who are with newly-homeless parents. About 400,000 of them remain homeless for more than a week.

But, as NAEH says, these figures are outdated. And the source they’re based on doesn’t include youth who’ve been homeless more than a year or homeless youth in the 18-24 age range.

For these young adults, we have some data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, based on what homeless assistance grant recipients report to its information system.

NAEH estimates that there are some 28,000 of them who are homeless for a long period of time or recurrently. The data are only for young adults who seek help from the HUD-funded programs, however.

No comparable data for youth who are living on the streets, “couch surfing” in homes of friends or relatives or living with someone else who’s befriended them — all too often to exploit them sexually.

Who Are These Homeless Youth?

So far as we know (not much), runaways represent a large percent of homeless youth. But they’re generally not leaving home to enjoy a freewheeling lifestyle, as some in the 1960s did.

Many are fleeing physical and/or sexual abuse. Some are responding to constant fighting or egregious neglect, often related to their parents’ excessive drinking or drug use — a source of the physical abuse also.

Substance abuse by youth themselves also enters into the picture — either that alone or in combination with the resulting (or causal) problems in school.

An unusual high percent of homeless youth are LGTB — 40% according to a recent study. This is at least four times the estimated number of LGTB youth in the population as a whole.

Nearly half of them run away because they fear parental rejection. Almost as many actually experience it by getting kicked out.

The same two factors reportedly account for some portion of homelessness among pregnant teenagers and new mothers.

And then we’ve got youth who’ve “aged out” of foster care and find themselves in the world alone without the resources to pay rent — and often without the education and/or training to get a job that will make that possible.

The same is true for youth who’ve been released from the protective custody of the juvenile justice system.

There are about 100,000 of them a year. And they’re often discharged with no support plan to help them cope with the many challenges they face — finding a safe, stable housing situation among them.

Finally, some youth strike out on their own because their families are homeless or otherwise in dire financial straits.

Or they don’t choose independence, but instead have been separated from their parents by policies that ban teenagers from family shelters.

Needless to say (I hope), these multifarious factors aren’t mutually exclusive.

What Are We Doing?

We’ve got a number of local programs that specialize in services for homeless youth, but nationwide they serve only 50,000 or so a year.

The top priority approach, especially for those under 18, is reunification with their parents through counseling that resolves conflicts and/or other services that go at underlying causes.

But returning youth to the nest isn’t always best for them — or even safe.

Nonprofits offer a range of services to help homeless youth make it on their own, e.g., counseling, education and training programs or links to these.

Meanwhile, these youth need a roof over their heads. And shelters for adults may be as risky for them as the streets.

Both federal and local funds support several types of housing specifically for youth, but there’s a large unmet need.

How large is one of those things we apparently don’t know, but we have some fragmentary indications.

For example, a 2007 survey in New York City produced an estimate of 3,800 homeless youth on any given night. The city now has emergency shelter beds for only 250 of them.

Here in the District of Columbia, the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates ballparks the number of homeless youth at about 7,350 a year.

We’ve got only 216 beds for them — and just eight specifically for LGTB youth.

We know more than enough to know that’s not enough, don’t we?


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