At the headquarters of Covenant House Washington in Southeast D.C., a nonprofit serving youth experiencing homelessness, ten twin-sized black canvas cots fill a white-tiled alcove on the main floor. The space serves as an emergency shelter for homeless young people, which Covenant House calls “The Sanctuary.” In keeping with its name, the walls are a deep, soothing blue.
Five of the cots are for women and five for men, which is far short of the demand. The room is empty now, in mid-afternoon, but by 6:00 p.m., when the shelter opens, young people will be lining up for a chance to snag a few square feet of space for the evening, and maybe a shower and a hot meal.
“We turn away at least 8 youth per night,” says Madye Henson, Covenant House Washington’s chief executive officer.
Henson has added extra beds for hypothermia season and is planning a permanent expansion to 20 beds this year. In combination with its other programs, that would bring Covenant House’s total emergency shelter capacity to 77, making it the city’s largest provider of emergency shelter for homeless youth. But compared with the D.C. General Family Shelter for families with children, with 264 beds, Covenant House is still tiny.
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The shortage of shelter beds for homeless youth is endemic across the country. Youth homelessness has been a low priority for federal funding and largely an afterthought in communities’ efforts to fight homelessness. Instead, young adults have been thrown into the system for chronically homeless adults, despite their very different needs and the dangers they face in adult shelters.
As a result, millions of young people are going without the shelter and services they need, at enormous downstream costs for government. “Shelter providers can tell you that some of the [homeless] adults they see now are the same people they saw as kids,” says Barbara Duffield, executive director of Schoolhouse Connection, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on ending youth homelessness.
As many as 1 in 10 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25—or 3.5 million young people—experience homelessness over a 12-month period, according to the Voice of Youth Count survey, a new study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. About half of this is “couch surfing,” which could include crashing at a friend’s house for a few days between apartments but typically involves more long-term housing instability. The other half is “explicit” homelessness, such as sleeping in cars, sheds, or under bridges. And while homelessness is often perceived to be an urban problem, the Chapin Hall study found that rural youth were just as likely to have experienced homelessness as youth in cities.
“When most people think of homelessness, they think of older adults or families on the streets, not adolescents or young people,” says Matthew Morton, principal investigator for Chapin Hall’s research. “We’ve always assumed young people were running away or acting out but not becoming chronically homeless over time.”
Morton’s research validates what’s long been evident in places like the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC)’s “drop-in” center for homeless youth—a brightly painted row house in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. While places like Covenant House provide space at night, LAYC is one of only two places in the city where homeless youth can find a safe place to stay during the day. Young people can get something to eat, take a shower and brush their teeth, talk to counselors, get help finding a job, and even do some laundry. The center also distributes 9,000 diapers a month to homeless young moms and maintains a roomful of donated clothing in all shapes and sizes.
John Van Zandt, the center’s director, says that about 30 to 35 young people come in every day. While the majority of these are regulars, about 100 or so every month are first-timers.
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, there’s a turkey roasting in the oven of the communal kitchen on the top floor of the row house. One young man is doing his laundry, carefully separating whites from colors. On the ground floor, in what would otherwise be the living room, there are several desks and computers for staff and a row of chairs where half a dozen young people are hanging out. Some are scrolling through their smartphones, one man with long braids and ripped jeans is working on his resume with a staffer, and two others are resting on bunkbeds in a small room at the back. A lot of casual banter is flying. The atmosphere is relaxed.
An African American man named Trevor is among the young people sitting in the chairs at the front of the room (he did not give his full name for privacy reasons). His build is tall and stocky but his long-lashed features are delicate and his beard closely shaved. At the moment, he’s getting ready to leave for a part-time retail job at a cosmetics store downtown. Many of the youth who come to LAYC have jobs, but they don’t earn nearly enough to afford D.C. rents.
Trevor has been homeless since his grandmother, his only relative, passed away four years ago. “She did everything for me,” he says. For a while, he coped with alcohol. “You know how they have the wine in the plastic containers that hold three glasses?” he says. “I would drink three of them a day … But I wouldn’t be like drunk,” he adds quickly. “I don’t like to show up at work drunk.”
Trevor is 26 years old, technically past the age that he’s eligible to receive the center’s services (which is 24), but he has nowhere else to go. At night, he’s been staying at Casa Ruby, a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth nearby. By day, he is often at LAYC.
Van Zandt hears dozens of stories like Trevor’s every day. “About 40 percent of the youth we serve identify as LGBT,” he says. “We have a lot of young trans youth here. Others have differences with their families and decide to leave. Some of them have babies, and their parents tell them, ‘If you’re old enough to have a baby, you’re old enough to be on your own.’” Other young people have been incarcerated but then released with no place to stay, while others are fleeing backgrounds of domestic violence or substance abuse or are aging out of foster care. Still others are what Van Zandt calls “generationally homeless,” with parents who are homeless, too.
Piled up against the walls of Van Zandt’s office in the basement are kitchen bags and paper sacks filled with clothes and random belongings—all left with him for safekeeping by the center’s clients. Each pile is its own story.
“That hamper down there is a boy who’s in jail,” says Van Zandt, pointing to a white plastic basket filled with sweatshirts and other clothing. “So we’re hanging onto his stuff till he comes back.” Van Zandt also says young people are allowed to use the center as their mailing address. “We have two huge mailboxes upstairs full of mail,” he says. “Hundreds of youth use this as their permanent address—packages, checks, you name it. I’m sure the DMV is wondering why there are so many people who say they live at 3045 15th Street.”
Despite the depth and breadth of youth homelessness that is obvious at places like LAYC and Covenant House, until only a few years ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) did not acknowledge homeless youth as a distinct population with distinct needs. Rather, HUD’s approach to homelessness has tended to be monolithic, with a particular focus on the highly visible, chronically homeless adults you see on park benches or sleeping in doorways.
One way this inattention to youth homelessness manifests itself is in the way that HUD determines the extent of homelessness in the country. On one night in January every year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) coordinates a nationwide count of the number of people experiencing homelessness by gathering data from shelters and transitional housing programs and sending volunteers into the streets. In 2017, this count found that 553,742 people were homeless as defined by HUD—that is, living in shelters, transitional housing programs, or out in the open (unsheltered). Until 2013, however, HUD did not explicitly count youth ages 18 to 24 (instead lumping them in with adults), and it wasn’t until 2015 that HUD’s official point-in-time counts included “unaccompanied young adults” in their own category.
Moreover, the way that HUD defines homelessness still results in a gross underestimate of homeless youth. “This count has been very oriented to adult patterns of homelessness and where adults are likely to go,” says Nan Roman, President of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In D.C., for example, the 2017 point-in-time census found just 238 homeless youth (as defined by HUD)—a number belied by the experience of people like LAYC’s Van Zandt and Covenant House’s Henson. Nationally, the homeless youth count was 36,010—orders of magnitude below the figures from Chapin Hall’s research.
The problem with the federal numbers is that HUD doesn’t consider homelessness to include couch surfing, which advocates say is the predominant experience of homeless youth. “Young people are the hidden homeless,” says advocate Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Network for Youth.
For one thing, young people tend to avoid shelters, encampments and other places where they are more likely to be seen—but also less likely to be counted—out of justifiable fears for their safety. A recent study of homeless youth released by Covenant House International and Loyola University found that 91 percent of the youth surveyed had been approached with “work opportunities” that turned out to be “fraudulent work situations, scams, pandering, or sex trafficking,” and that one-fifth had ultimately been victimized by this kind of trafficking.
It’s also often not clear when young people begin an episode of homelessness. “Young people aren’t fine one day and then sleeping under a bridge,” says Chapin Hall’s Morton. “Homelessness often involves a trajectory. A young person might run away a couple of times or sleep on someone’s couch or with a relative or neighbor. And then over time if these challenges they’re experiencing continue, running away or couch surfing becomes sleeping in the car or on the streets.”
That kind of instability was the experience of Carla R. of Fairfax, Virginia, who fled her abusive parents at age 17 while pregnant with her first child. “I was living in a lot of different places,” she says. “I was living at my sister’s house, my son’s father’s sister’s place, then my boyfriend’s friend’s place sometimes.” At one point, she stayed with her boyfriend’s mother, who was renting out space in her house for extra cash. She says she slept on the floor with at least a dozen other people scattered throughout the house. “I had bedbug bites everywhere.”
Nevertheless, Carla would not have been considered homeless by HUD.
The definition of homelessness matters because of its impact on the resources available—a principal purpose of HUD’s annual count is to help communities allocate their funds for preventing and ending homelessness. Undercounting homeless youth means that localities are in turn underestimating the extent of the problem and limiting what they spend on shelters and services targeted to youth.
According to Jasmine Hayes, deputy director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, HUD spent $2.38 billion on homelessness assistance in 2016, but just $134 million on youth-specific services. Congress has also consistently underfunded services available under the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, passed in 2008. While the law authorizes up to $165 million a year, actual funding has stayed flat at $119 million, Hayes says.
As a result, young people aren’t getting the services they need. Carla, for instance, was able to avoid the trajectory into street homelessness through a residential housing program for young mothers run by Second Story, a nonprofit based in Fairfax County, Virginia. The program helped her arrange for child care, improve her parenting skills, find a job, and even attend college. Today, at age 25, she has a well-paying job at a defense contracting agency and owns her own condo.
But she’s one of the lucky ones. According to executive director Judith Dittman, Second Story is now the only nonprofit in Fairfax County serving homeless youth, while five other shelters have closed their doors over the past few decades because of funding cuts. Despite Fairfax County’s reputation for affluence, the county reports more than 2,300 homeless children in its schools, and Dittman says there is consistently a waitlist of at least 20 to 30 youth for Second Story’s housing programs. “The need is just immense,” she says.
When a young person comes into an emergency shelter, many localities administer a standardized questionnaire, called the “Transition Age Youth Vulnerability Index – Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool” (TAY-VI-SPDAT), to assess the severity of a young person’s situation. The questionnaire asks, for example, how many episodes of homelessness a young person has experienced in the past three years, and whether they’ve ever been assaulted or engaged in risky activities such as exchanging “sex for money, food, drugs, or a place to stay.” It also includes questions about a young person’s mental and physical health and connections to family and friends. The higher the score, the more desperate the young person’s situation.
For example, says LAYC’s Van Zandt, “If you score high on the SPDAT, [it could be that] you’ve been trafficked, you’re addicted to K2 [a synthetic marijuana], and you’re bipolar.” But resources are also so scarce that it’s often only the young people in the direst of situations who are able to get help, while preventive services for people who are on the cusp of chronic homelessness are almost entirely absent.
That, says Morton, is the greatest tragedy of the current federal non-response to youth homelessness. “We’re forcing a cycle of waiting unless young people have suffered long enough to deserve services,” he says. “That’s the problem with the way the system works. Every young person who asks for help should get help.”
Instead, the lack of help and resources means that many of today’s homeless youth are almost certain to be tomorrow’s homeless adults. The result is not just greater costs for government but the catastrophic—and all too avoidable—loss of human potential.