Urban Wire The power of young voices
Susan J. Popkin, Sade Adeeyo
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Throughout this week, Urban Institute scholars offer evidence-based ideas for policies that can make a difference for communities in Baltimore and beyond grappling with inequality and injustice.  Although this series covers a lot of issues, we by no means address all the challenges that matter.


Twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray lived in Baltimore’s Gilmor Homes, a public housing development in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood and home to more than 500 extremely low-income and racially segregated families. Recent events in Baltimore and beyond have made it painfully clear that young people growing up in places like Gilmor are often living with chronic violence and a level of social isolation that threatens their life chances and silences their collective voice.

Three years ago, we posted a piece about the costs of chronic violence for families in DC’s public housing. But it could just as easily have been a story about Baltimore’s Gilmor Homes.

What it’s like to live in a place like Gilmor Homes

Living with chronic violence and social isolation has less visible, but very real psychic costs for children and adults. It means living in a place where everyone has been traumatized by loss and violation. It means you spend every day paranoid. It means you distrust your neighbors and the very people in place to support and protect your safety. It means having to normalize neighborhood disorder in order to cope with decades of neglect.

Like a tape playing on repeat, this burden sends a message to young people especially that their lives, their voices don’t matter.

Addressing these issues with a two-generation approach

In response to some of these challenges, the Urban Institute has developed the Housing Opportunities and Services Together (HOST) Demonstration. HOST is an evidence-based platform to help bring needed services to socially isolated families living in public housing.

HOST sites use a two-generation “whole family” approach to serve children and their parents. The core of HOST is on-site intensive case management or coaching—staff trained in state-of-the-art techniques like motivational interviewing and trauma-informed care.

Three years of experience have taught us that the most important service is clinical mental health support delivered on-site and in people’s homes. With lower caseloads, staff has the time to make sure that both parents and youth get the services and encouragement they need to improve their life chances.

Empowering residents and creating solutions

Equally important is engaging residents, especially the youth, to create their own solutions. Through HOST, we’re addressing key needs of residents by listening to and amplifying their voices.

Borrowing from public health approaches, we are working with parents and teens in DC public housing to improve sexual health and safety outcomes for teens. We are also working with youth and service providers in Portland, Oregon to design teen-friendly emergency food access programs.

In both communities, residents and service providers are involved in advisory boards and steering committees to take back their community’s health and access with a sense of pride. The youth are providing direct input into transformative, resident-centered programs that bring attention to their needs and empower their peers to tap into individual, community, and eventually institutional power.

We are piloting and testing these evidence-informed strategies by prioritizing the voices of young people with the hope that they feel ownership over these solutions— and that they will ultimately help improve conditions in their own environments, as well as offer lessons for other socially isolated places. 

Illustration by Adrienne Hapanowicz, Urban Institute


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Children and youth Race and equity
Tags Social determinants of health Neighborhoods and youth development Racial inequities in health Racial inequities in neighborhoods and community development
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center