A few weeks ago, I attended the National Conference on Ending Youth & Family Homelessness in Houston, TX. During the lunch hour, we heard from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. In his remarks he made a simple, yet insightful statement that I’ve been thinking about for the last two weeks. He said, ‘managing homelessness is different than solving homelessness.’
Youth homelessness is often linked to family conflict, yet the majority of our youth and young adult homeless services are focused on sheltering and housing youth outside the home. Fewer resources are dedicated to preventing, reconnecting, and reunifying families. When you stop to think about it, it feels like we’re throwing the baby, or in this case the family, out with the bathwater. Perhaps the best way to serve a youth is to serve their family.
Now to be clear, I am not suggesting all runaway and homeless youth should be reunited with their parents. In a broad survey of more than 600 Youth Care clients in the Seattle/King County region, researchers found that 74% had been physically abused at home – and 39% sexually abused. What I am suggesting is we recalibrate our system so that our knee-jerk response isn’t to serve youth and young adults in isolation, but where possible to serve the entire family. For instance, Youthcare’s survey also found 40 percent of the youth identified as LGBTQ. This suggests homophobia plays a significant role in youth homelessness. And there are homeless and unstably housed youth who come from families experiencing deep poverty.
Researchers and providers are starting to explore family-based therapeutic interventions and two-generation responses that are appropriate to use in the homeless system. These interventions may provide us with an opportunity to “turn off the tap” and reduce the number of youth and young adults that need shelter and housing, which I should note is expensive. Also, when reunification isn’t possible, these programs give us the opportunity to ensure youth and young adults have positive and supportive relationships so they’ll remain stably housed and transition successfully into adulthood outside the home.
The conference showcased a number of programs that have seen promising results. A few are highlighted below:
- The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) was developed at San Francisco State University to prevent negative mental and physical health outcomes such as substance abuse, suicide, removal from the home, and homelessness among LBGTQ youth by counseling their families and by training providers and religious leaders on how to support families in a culturally responsive manner. Note: According to the 2016 One Night Count, 25 percent of homeless youth and young adults in King County identified as LGBTQ.
- Support to Reunite, Involve, and Value Each Other (STRIVE) is a family-based therapeutic intervention used in Los Angeles County that focuses on reconnecting newly homeless youth with their families. Clinical services and parent training are offered in the home. The program has improved educational outcomes and mental health, and reduced delinquency among participants.
- Impact Wednesday is a one-stop shop in Kansas City, Kansas providing wraparound care to homeless families who have been referred by the school district’s McKinney-Vento program. The resource center is made possible through a collaboration among various service providers and is open every Wednesday from 9:00am-12:00pm. The focus is on the child and ensuring they attend school, progress to the next grade level, graduate high school, and transition successfully to adulthood. To ensure the success of the child, Impact Wednesday serves the family.
There’s no simple solution to youth and young adult homelessness. Incorporating these program types won’t provide the magic bullet, but they may have a significant impact, which is why the i-team is exploring these types of programs and system partnerships to gauge their applicability in the Seattle area. If we want to solve youth and young adult homelessness, perhaps it’s time we think beyond the individual youth and focus more energy on serving their families. In order to serve families, we need to think outside our homeless response system and form true partnerships with other systems such as the education and child welfare system. Otherwise, no matter how quickly and efficiently we can house youth and young adults, I fear we’ll just be managing homelessness, instead of solving it.