Looking for homeless youth? Try the mall, schools, a pizzeria, or a friend's couch
Ziggy was kicked out of her house by her brothers when she was 14, because she was a lesbian. She tried every morning to get up and continue to attend school, even though for weeks at time, she didn’t know where she would sleep each night.
There are many more youth who, like Ziggy, experience homelessness, but the true number is unknown. While there are annual efforts to count the number of people who experience homelessness, youth tend to be a hidden population that is missed and misrepresented.
The methods commonly used for counting adult homeless do not accurately capture the survival strategies common to youth. Instead of frequenting shelters and food pantries, youth are mobile and transient, preferring to hang out in public settings like bus depots, fast food restaurants, or the mall.
Further, homeless youth try to hide in plain sight, not wanting to draw attention to themselves for fear of being placed in or returned to an undesirable home situation, fear of police, wariness of the stigma attached to being homeless, and concern about being taken advantage of. They try to blend in or disappear into the background. Instead of entering homeless shelters, most of which are set up for adults, many double up or couch surf.
Strategies to remain invisible leave homeless youth vulnerable to victimization. Many experience violence and are lured into prostitution.
Last winter, nine communities across the country (Boston; Cleveland; Hennepin County, MN; Houston; Los Angeles; New York City; King County/Seattle, WA; Washington State; and Winston-Salem, NC) participated in the Youth Count! initiative to improve counts of unaccompanied homeless youth—those not connected to their families. The sites used various strategies, including conducting surveys, expanding their coverage areas to include places where youth congregate, holding magnet events to encourage youth to be counted, and coordinating with runaway and homeless youth providers, LGBTQ organizations, and schools.
The Urban Institute conducted a process study of the initiative to identify promising practices that could be adapted and taken to scale to produce credible and useful data nationwide. We just released the results today, and you can read more here.
Why count homeless youth? It is crucial to obtain more accurate, detailed information on the prevalence, characteristics, and needs of homeless youth in order to develop a system that supports youth in need and will end or prevent their homelessness. Better data on youth homelessness will strengthen the ability of agencies to design solutions and better serve youth like Ziggy.