Illustration by Mo Manklang
Every year in late January, hundreds of volunteers spread out into the cold to search alleyways, parks and subway tunnels across Philadelphia. These volunteers are participating in what’s called the Point in Time (PIT) count, a one-night survey designed to measure the unsheltered homeless population in a given area.
“It’s basically a snapshot of what Philadelphia’s homeless population is looking like for this particular season,” said Robin Hernandez, a coordinator for the count at Project HOME.
The PIT count is mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and carried out by local service providers. HUD requires a count to be done at least every other year in jurisdictions that receive federal homeless assistance. Here in Philadelphia, which does the count annually, the nonprofit Project HOME is contracted to administer the count and recruit volunteers.
“These point in time counts started in 2005 with the idea that the federal government, at the request of a lot of states and localities, wanted to get a better handle on how many homeless there were and whether they were making progress in reducing their numbers,” said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Yet the count is widely considered to have fallen short in measuring perhaps the most vulnerable and elusive homeless subpopulation: youth.
“Youth don’t particularly want to be identified as homeless,” said Roberta Cancellier, deputy director of policy and planning at the Philadelphia Office of Supportive Housing. She added that many hide in plain sight by staying on the move, sleeping in different places and avoiding services for fear of being taken into custody.
As a result, Berg said, data collected from the PIT counts often do not reflect what service providers are seeing on the ground.
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“I think when people started looking at the Point in Time count numbers, it was clear they weren’t seeing those youth reflected,” he said.
Cancellier noted that the Office of Supportive Housing, which helps coordinate Philadelphia’s network of homeless service providers, is also aware of the disconnect.
“We don’t know what we need to know to address [youth homelessness] in the best way possible,” she said. “That’s just where we are, and we’re not alone.”
A new initiative seeks to close this gap in knowledge. Last year, prior to the 2014 PIT count, a coalition of local youth and homeless organizations formed to to improve the youth count by working together to draw homeless youth out into the open through targeted events.
The coalition formed in the midst of a robust period of change in how the country addresses homelessness. Here’s a look at how youth homelessness got to the center of the federal agenda and how Philadelphia is joining cities across the country in an effort to create a better youth count.
Towards a better count
The federal government’s commitment to homelessness has grown in fits and starts since the late 1980s, when Congress passed the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act, establishing for the first time a federal response to the problem. Prior to the act, homelessness was the domain of social service organizations and local governments.
The act created the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), a cross-departmental agency that coordinates federal policy on homelessness, and established a funding stream for homeless assistance. In 1994, regulators amended the act to create the Continuum Of Care system, which allowed local networks of service providers to apply as a group.
One thing the act did not address was how specific subpopulations, say youth or families, need targeted assistance. This improved over the years as USICH directed resources towards better understanding and helping veterans and the severely mentally ill, among other groups experiencing homelessness.
Youth are perhaps the most recent subpopulation to get their due. In 2009, the Obama Administration turned its sights on creating a comprehensive plan for ending homelessness. The plan, titled Opening Doors, came out a year later, and at the urging of homeless advocates, included a whole section devoted to youth homelessness. It also set a benchmark to end youth homelessness by 2020.
“In large part, HUD has recognized nationally — and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness — that youth homelessness is something that requires a specific focus,” said Cancellier. “You can’t do things the same way for young people as you might for a family or a single male that is 50 years old. It’s really a unique population with unique needs.”
The problem of how to better count youth, however, was still not addressed. In 2012, USICH added amendments to the plan that set a goal to “obtain more comprehensive information on the scope of youth homelessness.” This led to an additional report that called for series of pilot projects in nine cities, including Los Angeles, Houston, Cleveland and Boston, that implemented innovative approaches to counting youth.
A study by the Urban Institute analyzed the success of the pilot projects and outlined some of the best practices used, as well recommendations for improvement:
- engage youth service providers, especially LGBTQ-focused organizations
- involve youth in the count
- use social media
- measure housing instability rather than homelessness
- hold “magnet events”
- engage schools
Homeless advocacy organizations used some of these methods prior to the report, according to Berg, but now service providers had a reference point and direct federal support and encouragement. In 2014, HUD released for the first time specific guidance for how to administer the PIT count. The guidance included best practices for counting youth that referenced the Urban Institute report.
In the span of less than five years, the federal government went from having almost no policy on counting youth to codifying one.
If everyone followed the HUD guidance, “we would get a much, much better count than we have now,” Berg said. “The very best places are going to go beyond what’s in there, but if we could get everyone to at least do the things in the guidance, that would be very helpful.”
Building a coalition
Philadelphia’s Office of Supportive Housing began its own efforts to improve the youth count less than two years ago.
“Back in the summer of 2013, we established a youth coalition specifically for the purpose of understanding youth homelessness better,” Cancellier said.
Though it had just a few months to prepare, the coalition held four magnet events on the night of the 2014 PIT count. Participating youth received a free gift card or resource, such as a piece of clothing or winter gear.
Fifty three unsheltered homeless youth, age 18-24 by HUD’s definition, were living on the streets during the 2014 PIT count. Magnet events were responsible for counting 25 out of the total, according to Cancellier. In contrast, the 2013 count, which did not use magnet events, found 15 unsheltered youth. Neither year’s count found children under 18 living on the streets.
There are currently 20 coalition members, according to Cancellier, including youth and homeless service organizations such as Valley Youth House, Youth Emergency Services, and The Achieving Independence Center. For 2015, coalition members are trying to increase the count’s scope and accuracy.
Organizers are developing relationships with institutional partners as well. The coalition is in talks with the Free Library, for example, to use branch libraries in targeted zip codes as way to develop contacts with homeless youth, said O’Bryan.
“More people want to get involved, so hopefully over the course of the next year it will grow,” O’Bryan said. He added that another goal for the year was to implement a quarterly count, rather than just an annual count.
There will be five magnet events this year located around the city.(See flier to the right for event details.) Unlike the adult PIT count, the youth count is done over a span of 10 days, beginning on January 21. The first events will be held today before the adult PIT count, which begins at midnight and runs until 3a.m.
But even among a small network of organizations with the shared goal of serving youth, growing pains persist.
“There are complications whenever something this big and new is undertaken,” said Michael O’Bryan, a long-time advocate for the homeless and a lead organizer of the coalition.
O’Bryan said the difficulty in growing the coalition has been building trust and conveying the importance of the count. This can be difficult, he added, because the benefits of a better youth count, while important in the long-run to obtaining funding and developing programming, are not immediately clear to certain organizations or the youth themselves.
He calls what he does “proselytizing, like getting people to understand what this is, why it’s important, and why we need them to buy in.”
Images via Michael O’Bryan and Valley Youth House-30-
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