Survey Yields Insights on Homeless DC Youth

Back in February, DC Councilmembers Jim Graham and Michael Brown introduced a bill that would, among other things, give us a better fix on who is homeless in the District and what services are — and ought to be — available for them.

Nothing’s happened with the bill, so far as I can tell, since the hearing in June.

But something has happened to address the main focus of the hearing — unaccompanied homeless youth.

The DC Alliance of Youth Advocates has released the results of a survey it conducted with partners — many partners — last March.

It’s the first-ever survey of youth homelessness in the District — and one of the first of its kind anywhere in the U.S.

So now we know more than we did before, which was virtually nothing. I wish I could say we know more than we do.

But, as the report forthrightly acknowledges, the survey had significant limits — some inherent in the enterprise itself and some due to the project design.

As a result, we’ve got lots of information about the literally homeless and “unstably housed” youth who answered the survey questions in a way that allowed researchers to analyze their responses.

No way, however, of knowing to what extent we can generalize to the larger population that met DCAYA’s definition of “unaccompanied homeless youth.”

The definition is broader than the term might suggest.

And, to my mind, somewhat problematic because it embraces two populations that are likely to be homeless for different reasons and to need quite different types of services. DCAYA sometimes reports on them separately. Often not.

On the other hand, new regulations from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expand the definition of “unaccompanied youth” to include young adults under the age of 25.

Since these regulations will govern the District’s applications for grants under the HEARTH (Homeless Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act, it makes some sense to adopt the same upper age limit for the survey.

In any event, young people qualified as homeless and unaccompanied if they were under 18 and “living apart from their parents or guardians” or between the ages of 18 and 24 and both “economically and/or emotionally detached from their families” and without “an adequate or fixed residence.”

All told, 330 youth surveyed met this definition. Though an additional 160 didn’t, more than half of them said they didn’t have stable housing two weeks and three months prior to the survey.

DCAYA did some calculations to estimate the number of local youth who were homeless at some point during the course of the year. At least 1,600, based on its survey results. But this estimate is very conservative, it says.

Using estimates gathered by the Congressional Research Service, the number would increase dramatically — on the low end, to just over 3,000 and on the high end to just under 6,000.

So we clearly need more and better data than we’ve got. But we’ve got enough to know that we’ve got a highly vulnerable population that needs an array of services we’re not providing — or not providing enough of.

Detailed analyses of the survey results indicate priorities. A few examples:

  • Nearly half the homeless youth surveyed had spent the night before on the streets or “couch surfing” at the home of a friend of family member — mostly the latter.
  • Only 48.9% of those under 18 were in school — or, it seems, a program that would prepare them for the GED exams.
  • More than 81% of the whole group were unemployed — an extraordinarily high rate for D.C. youth, even in these bad economic times.
  • A full 90% of the youth were black — maybe a function of the survey design, but suspiciously similar to the percents in our child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

DCAYA calls for more stable, long-term housing as “the primary component to moving youth forward.”

I’d have welcomed more such forthright, policy-relevant conclusions and actionable policy recommendations.

What DCAYA calls “policy recommendations” are actually discourses on a few general theme — hard to summarize, as indeed is the report as a whole.

DCAYA is understandably queasy about generalizing from its limited — and perhaps not representative — survey sample.

But it’s also, I think, made such results as it has harder to digest than they ought to be — at least, if it aims to reach “all those who want to see D.C. youth achieve more stable and productive lives,” as its press release indicates.

Still well worth a read and a fine basis for the further studies it recommends. Also a unique source of hard data for advocates and service providers who want to make a case for this or that.

You can get the gist in the executive summary, which helpfully bold-faces key findings and implications.

5 Responses to Survey Yields Insights on Homeless DC Youth

  1. I think this report speaks equally to the broader issue of data generally. The city not only lacks data about homeless youth. It lacks data about the number of homosexual dual arrests in cases of DV, it lacks outcome data for child abuse and neglect prevention efforts.

    I would hope that this report could be used in the broad context of arguing for more and better data from agencies AND contractors (government grantees and contractors for grants/contracts of all amounts). The issue of youth homeless, after all, is not just about homelessness. It’s about parental mental health and substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, family stability, etc.

    And last but certainly not least, thank you Kathryn for this post. Makes me feel less guilty for not having found the time to read the report!

  2. […] A snapshot of youth homelessness. [P&P] […]

  3. […] Policy analyzes a survey released by the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates that sheds some light on homeless youth in the […]

  4. db says:

    Most of these 10 year plans are all a scam. If you look at their founding documents they all contain the same language which is “appropriate and affordable.” The largest portion of the homeless population are single men who need immediate permanent employment. If they had that employment then they could get market rate housing and not even need this 10 year plan.

    The catch is that none of this 10 year plan housing is free at all. So if you are a homeless male and cannot find a job you’ll never qualify for the 10 year plan housing because in order to get this housing you have to pay. If you’re homeless without a job tell me how exactly can you pay? It’s not possible. That’s why I call BS on all of these 10 year plans. In fact many cities have ignored the plans and have no intention of seeing them through. It’s all BS.

    These 10 year plans do not intend to replace homeless shelters with some type of “housing first” intake system. The shelters will always exist with all of their crime, diseases, harsh atmosphere and prison mentality. I have sat on some of these 10 year plan councils and investigated them very carefully and I can say with almost 100% accuracy they are a total fraud.

  5. Kathryn Baer says:

    I don’t know nearly enough to respond to this sweeping condemnation. I do, however, think that the housing first statement is over-broad. Here in the District of Columbia, for example, the updated strategic plan to end homelessness expressly includes a target for developing and/or subsidizing a large number of PSH units.

    Whether the target will be reached is another matter. Funding has been—and will likely remain—a problem. Federal funding for homelessness programs is flat this year and is very vulnerable to cuts as Congress seeks to hit the new deficit-reduction targets.

    I should also say that I don’t agree that homeless people could get market-rate housing if they were employed. I look again to the situation in my hometown. Back in November I wrote about homeless people and jobs. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, someone working full-time at our local minimum wage rate wouldn’t earn nearly enough to afford a FMR one-bedroom apartment.

    You can find the post here,

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