We Don’t Know How Many DC Youth Are Homeless, But We Do Know Too Many

My last post focused on poverty among older teens and young adults, both in the District of Columbia and nationwide. Some, though far from all are homeless. Here’s what we know — and don’t — about the scope of the problem.

As you’ll see, we still don’t have a good fix on how many homeless young people are out in the world alone — those formally known as “unaccompanied.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that, on a single night sometime during January 2013, there were 40,727 homeless, unaccompanied youth in the U.S. These are all 18-24 year olds. Teenagers on the cusp of adulthood are lumped together with younger children. Far fewer were unaccompanied, according to the counts HUD tabulated.

Nearly half (48%) of the unaccompanied youth counted were unsheltered, i.e., spending the night in a car, public transit station or, in HUD-speak, elsewhere “not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping place for human beings.”

The District reported only six homeless, unaccompanied minors and said that all were sheltered. As some of you may recall, I questioned this figure when the results of the Washington metro area counts were first reported.

To HUD itself, the District also reported 158 homeless 18-24 year olds “in households without children.” Eighteen, it said, were unsheltered.

An additional 446 in the same age bracket and counted were in households with at least one children — presumably, in most cases, their own. Somewhat over half were in an emergency shelter — and none unsheltered, the report says.

If accurate, this is probably because the count was made on a freezing-cold night, when the District is legally obliged to shelter anyone who would otherwise have no safe place to stay.

What we know for sure is that more parents at the now-notorious DC General shelter are still in their teens or not much older. Last winter, nearly half there were between 18 and 24, according to the coalition that developed the roadmap for a better homeless family system.

Yet we also know for sure that both the national and the District’s figures are undercounts. This is partly because homeless youth — the unaccompanied, at least — are singularly hard to count.

But even the best count wouldn’t give us an accurate read because the definition of “homeless” that HUD must use — and therefore, the definition its grantees must use for their counts — excludes many youth, as well as older people whom most of us, I think, would consider homeless.

HUD has only recently begun requiring breakouts for homeless youth. And the latest posted reports are more detailed than those for the previous year. So we can’t trace trends. But we do have some evidence that the number of homeless, unaccompanied children and youth is rising.

The Department of Education, whose definition of “homeless” is broader than HUD’s, reports that the public school systems to which it had awarded grants for support to homeless students had 62,890 who were enrolled during the 2012-13 school year and with no parent or guardian looking out for them. This represents a 14% increase over the 2010-11 school year.

We don’t get a breakout for the District, alas. But we do find total homeless student enrollment figures in prior Education Department reports.

So we learn that the D.C. public schools reported 2,499 homeless students during the 2009-10 school year and 2,947 during the 2011-12 school year. This represents an increase of nearly 18%.

Though the upward trends indicated are probably accurate, the hard numbers are again almost surely undercounts.

For one thing, the homeless, unaccompanied students are only those who received services from grant-funded staff or activities. For another, the totals, including the District’s, tell us only how many homeless students school authorities could identify.

Homeless students, we’re told, are often reluctant to seek aid and hard for school authorities to identify when they don’t. They’re fearful of peer reactions, being put into foster care, etc. We can assume this is especially the case for those who are on their own.

And, of course, the Education Department’s figures don’t include youth who’ve dropped out of school — or those who’ve graduated and been unable to find jobs that would give them the wherewithal for rent.

In sum we seem to have better data on homeless children and youth than we used to — the unaccompanied cohort in particular. But we know they’re imperfect.

Here in the District, we may have better numbers fairly soon. The budget for this fiscal year includes $1.3 million for the End Homeless Youth Act — an optimistically titled bill based on recommendations by another coalition.

The bill requires the Department of Human Services to conduct “an extended youth count,” which, I take it, means something considerably more comprehensive than the one-night counts that have yielded such dubious figures.

But the bill itself called for $10 million in annual funding, reflecting what the coalition estimated the first year of its plan would cost. A million was for evaluation, including, but not limited to the youth count.

So it’s not altogether clear what we’ll have and when. Meanwhile, however, even the figures we have are plenty good enough to tell us that we’ve got a larger, more complex problem than our public agencies and the nonprofits they help support have the resources or the inter-connections to cope with effectively — let alone solve.

The Winter Plan for the upcoming season identifies 117 shelter beds specifically for young adults and 10 beds (no, this is not a typo) for unaccompanied minors.

And, as I earlier wrote, there’s no genuine plan for homeless families — thus none for the large number headed by parents in their late teens and early twenties. Setting aside the urgent shelter capacity issue, solutions designed for older people, e.g., rapid re-housing, may not be suitable for them.

Many challenges for the new administration. One can only hope it will be more concerned with meeting the diverse needs of its homeless constituents — even if that means spending more, as it probably will.

 

 

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