Philadelphia can quell youth homelessness if the city acts now - Generocity Philly

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May 2, 2016 12:53 pm

Philadelphia can quell youth homelessness if the city acts now

Council chambers were packed for a hearing on the subject last Thursday.

A youth homelessness hearing in Council Chambers earlier this year.

(Photo by Tony Abraham)

“First time we’re together like this,” said Councilman Allan Domb to Councilwoman Helen Gym in a crowded Council Chambers last Thursday. “It’s amazing to me this issue exists. It’s terrible to have homelessness. It’s worse to have young people homeless. It’s hard to fathom.”

That’s how the hearing on youth homelessness kicked off, with Domb and Gym addressing a room brimming with advocates watching from the floor and peering down from the chamber balcony.

Office of Supportive Housing (OSH) Director Liz Hersh was first to testify.

“Too many young people in Philadelphia experience homelessness,” she said. “How many? The short answer is, we don’t really know.”

It depends on how you count, how you define homelessness and whom you ask, Hersh said. Yet, each year OSH is forced to turn away youth because there simply are not enough beds for them. Currently, there are “388 service-enriched housing beds” for homeless youth in the city.

Hersh outlined four critical areas that need to be improved to address the issue: stable housing, permanent connections, education and employment, and social and emotional wellbeing.

“Ending youth homelessness is not out of reach for Philadelphia,” she said.

The city might first look at the link between foster care and youth homelessness, said Department of Human Services‘ Children and Youth Division Deputy Commissioner Gary Williams.

Youth that had been in foster care are more likely to experience homelessness. Approximately 50 percent of foster care youth nationally will become homeless once they age out of the system, Williams said, and Philadelphia has similar numbers.

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This year through March 2016, Williams said, DHS has seen 176 youth age out of their system. Last year was a total of 275. Philadelphia is at least “on track to land on that number again for this fiscal year.”

Office of LGBT Affairs Director Helen Fitzpatrick drew attention to the fact that there are a “disproportionate” number of LGBTQ youth who are homeless or have experienced homelessness. Approximately 42 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, she said, but the number is likely over half.

“Is there a recommendation that there should be a separate facility for LGBT youth?” Domb said.

Fitzpatrick said facilities need to be varied to accommodate individual needs.

Gym asked Hersh if the OSH’s recent $28 million HUD grant could be leveraged to alleviate youth homelessness.

“There’s no flexibility,” Hersh said. “That’s renewal funding for existing programs.”

“So, if we want to solve this problem,” Domb asked, “how do we do it?”

The room went silent for a few moments until Hersh spoke up.

“Let’s start with the $3.5 million” needed to get kids into residential care and create a continuum between housing, education and employment, she said. “That we know we can do.”

Councilman Derek Green, a staunch pay for success advocate, asked whether or not the strategy could be used to tackle Philadelphia’s homeless youth problem.

Hersh was quick to challenge the idea, arguing that pay for success has not been proven to work in homelessness as it has in recidivism — but she suggested a joint committee explore the idea further.

A number of other agencies including Community Legal Services, Project HOME and People’s Emergency Center had representatives testify. The consensus is clear: Philadelphia has a fixable problem. It’s just a matter of allocating resources before the situation gets out of control.

“If you look at the data from the last four years from OSH, you could reasonably expect that some 3,000 families whose head of households under the age of 24 will become homeless,” said PEC’s VP of Policy Joe Willard. “The question is, is Philadelphia prepared?”

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