Brief Incorporating Young People’s Leadership in Program Design and Policy Planning
Case Study of the Oregon Department of Human Service’s Youth Experiencing Homelessness Program
Amelia Coffey
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An Urban Institute multiphase project has highlighted gaps and challenges in the safety net and identified promising strategies to ensure young people have the support they need to thrive. One core challenge is that many young people in need of assistance are ineligible for existing supports, or support is insufficient to meet their basic needs. One important strategy is engaging young people in improving safety net services.

This brief—one in a series of three—presents a case study of the strategy used by the Youth Experiencing Homelessness Program (YEHP), part of the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS), to provide young people with leadership opportunities in designing and planning programming for young people facing homelessness.

Why This Matters

The years young people move from adolescence to adulthood—roughly ages 14 to 24—are full of immense potential. Research shows that this is a critical period for brain development that, if properly nurtured, can set young people up for positive identity development and the self-direction needed to successfully navigate adulthood. With a stable foundation, adolescents can thrive and become healthy, productive young adults contributing to their communities. During this transition, access to food, housing, health care, and income can shape young people’s life trajectories and affect whether they meet their full potential. But significant inequities—particularly for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous young people—have contributed to far too many having insufficient access to supports for meeting these basic needs.

Key Takeaways

YEHP provides young people with leadership opportunities in planning and designing programs and policies to support young people experiencing homelessness. YEHP’s successful approach offers several key lessons for other agencies that are seeking to improve their services to help young people meet their basic needs.

  • Listening to young people with lived experience should be a top priority for youth-serving programs. Young people’s experience can provide unique and invaluable insight into opportunities for programs to better meet young people’s needs. Older adults and people without relevant lived experience of housing insecurity are unlikely to share the same perspectives and priorities as program participants or have a detailed understanding of how to best support them.
  • Working toward leadership buy-in at multiple levels is important. YEHP’s experience demonstrates how gaining buy-in for youth leadership at multiple key levels of decisionmaking (e.g., agencies’ leadership) can support strategy expansion and solidification.
  • Collaboration is key. Establishing youth leadership required collaboration with external organizations that brought unique capacities. For example, partnering with local service providers that had deep personal relationships with young people allowed YEHP to gain young people’s trust and access their time and expertise.
  • With the right support, young people can be powerful advocates for program improvements. With support and guidance from older adults, young people proved to be skilled and effective messengers to agency leadership. Providing them with a platform to present a policy agenda they had designed based on firsthand experience was critical in efforts to obtain buy-in for funding for and changes to YEHP practices and programming.
  • Achieving strong implementation takes time and thoughtful leadership. YEHP staff and partners took small steps over several years to gain youth input on needs and enact relatively small programmatic changes before moving on to larger-scale and longer-term efforts. Over this period, YEHP strategically partnered with decisionmakers within Oregon’s state government to embed youth leadership so that it would be more likely to endure and be effective at improving services for young people.
Research Areas Children and youth Social safety net
Tags Welfare and safety net programs Transition-age youth
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
States Oregon