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.
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.