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Unaccompanied Homeless Teens

Homeless couple with dogRecently, House the Homeless talked about a report called “When the Bough Breaks: The Effects of Homelessness on Young Children” (PDF). One of the points it made is that children without stable homes are more than twice as likely as others to repeat a school grade, be expelled or suspended, or drop out of high school.

There is an elementary school in Las Vegas with about 600 kids enrolled, of whom about 500 are homeless. This is happening in America! Stories of student homelessness come from Green Bay, Wisconsin; from Chillicothe, Ohio; New York, south Florida, Oregon. Everywhere.

Take Sacramento County, California, where in 2007, the number of children without stable housing was 5,120. By the time 2009 rolled around, they had 7,254 homeless kids. In one county. Which happens to be the county where the state capital resides. It’s very similar to Washington, D.C., capital of the nation. The metroplex that includes the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland and Virginia is populated by the truly astonishing numbers of people experiencing homelessness. And politicians, and lobbyists working against every right and interest of the average person.

A while back, Kevin Sieff wrote inspiringly about a program in that very part of the country. First, he explains that according to federal law, every school district needs to have a homeless liaison. There is some federal money for homeless students, but it’s for things like transportation and tutoring. If the kid has nowhere to live, that’s the business of some other agency.

But not the business of the bureaucracy known as Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In HUD’s book, if a kid is sleeping on a relative’s floor, that counts as being housed. HUD is only able to help a kid who lives in a shelter or a car, or the actual street.

Those in the greatest need are helped first. It’s not unfair, but it does get in the way of keeping track of how many young individuals are drifting around like flotsam. Looking at it this way, they can be divided into two sub-populations, the definitively homeless and the technically, but just barely, housed.

Sieff explains another reason why the numbers are tricky, when using a different lens or filter:

The statistics from each school system reflect only homeless teens who have managed to continue their studies despite a lack of permanent shelter. Those who have dropped out are not included in these counts.

So that’s another way of defining sub-populations — the kids who try to stay in school and the kids who gave up. A lot of other variables complicate each individual picture, too. Contrary to popular belief, many young people are homeless through no fault or desire of their own.

The reporter’s main story concerned the Homeless Youth Initiative, a program described as an “experimental partnership” between the schools of Fairfax County and a place called Alternative House, and $170,000 of federal grant money designated for the housing of students. The county contains about 2000 homeless students, and about 200 of those are what the state calls “unaccompanied.”

Sieff says:

Most of the students use a $450 monthly rental subsidy funded by the federal stimulus package to stay in apartments they find on Craigs-list.

Some of these emancipated teens live on their own, and some are placed with families. They go to school and work part-time. When Sieff wrote about the program, its future was in doubt. The federal stimulus dollars are only an emergency stopgap or bridge, set to expire. The funding is so important because it helps kids stabilize their situations. A young person needs firm ground to stand on, when getting ready for the battle to find the ever-elusive living-wage job.

Somehow, the Fairfax county program is still hanging on. HYI’s own website says:

The Homeless Youth Initiative consists of three parts:

— An Alternative House single family home where four young women reside;
— Private host homes; and
— Small rent subsidies to help students with renting a room in the community.

All of the youth participating in the Homeless Youth Initiative receive housing and community support, as well as case management services, individual therapy, life skills education, tutoring, and assistance with emergency food and supplies.

The program arranges matches between homeless high school students and families who offer living space and companionship, very much like what happens when an American family hosts a foreign exchange student. The program has won praise from the Interagency Council on Homelessness, but however great a model it might be, the odds against replicating it in other places are formidable.

Only two counties in the whole country have median household incomes of over $100,000 a year, and Fairfax is one of them. The government says there are about a million homeless students in the country, so all we need — in communities that are nowhere near as prosperous — is approximately several thousand more programs like this..

And the Universal Living Wage!

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Source: “Number of homeless students in Sacramento County schools jumps 50%-plus,” The Sacramento Bee, 07/14/11
Source: “Schools cope with shelterless students,” The Washington Post, 12/26/10
Source: “Homeless Youth Initiative (HYI),” TheAlternativeHouse.org
Image by Franco Folini, used under its Creative Commons license.