Homeless Youth Estimation Project in Connecticut

runawayIn January and February of 2015, Youth Catalytics directed the Homeless Youth Estimation Project in nine high schools in Connecticut, an effort designed to provide a reliable estimate of the number of teenagers in those school districts who had left home and were living somewhere else — a car, a friend’s house, a group home — temporarily. The Estimation Project was conducted as part of Connecticut’s first ever Homeless Youth Count. The Homeless Youth Count and Estimation Project were both developed under Opening Doors-CT’s Homeless Youth Planning Project, which aimed to design a comprehensive, integrated service system for homeless and unstably housed youth and young adults across the state.

The goal of the Estimation Project is to inform public policy regarding services to homeless and unstably housed adolescents, and to improve the ability of schools and community-based agencies to develop and obtain funding for those services.

The Project uses high schools as project sites because schools are a universal point of convergence for adolescents, and because young people themselves are uniquely positioned to report on the well-being of friends and acquaintances. In Connecticut, students in grades 9-12 in nine high schools were read a script by a teacher describing the project, then asked to fill out a one-page survey about friends and acquaintances age 19 and under who had left home, voluntarily or otherwise. The survey asked for the first and last initials of peers, their age and grade level (if still in school), their current living situation and length of time in that situation. The survey was administered in all classes in each school. In Connecticut, 5,439 students completed the survey. (All classroom teachers were also asked to complete a special teachers survey; dozens did, but participation was nonetheless spotty. About 75% of teachers who did respond indicated that they knew no unstably housed youth.) During analysis, duplicate or potentially duplicate surveys were eliminated.

Project Findings

The Connecticut project sought to gain a better understanding of the numbers of young people age 19 or under who were unstably housed, not just those who were living on the street or in homeless shelters. In the pie charts to the right, ‘UHY’ refers to ‘unstably housed youth.’

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In Connecticut, 5,439 student respondents reported a total of 930 unduplicated friends or acquaintances who were unstably housed, or a rate of 17 youth per 100 student reporters. Between schools, reported rates of unstably housed youth ranged from 12% to 25%, a figure that seemed to vary depending on factors such as the number of students in attendance on survey days and the poverty level of the neighborhoods in which these schools were located. See detailed findings here.

Homeless and unstably housed students reported in the various Connecticut schools bore substantially similar profiles. In each school, the majority of unstably housed youth were reported to be living temporarily with relatives or friends, though 5% were said to be living on the street, in a car or outside. Given the frequency with which many unstably housed youth move from place to place, it was not uncommon for reported youth to have lived in multiple settings — with friends, relatives, boyfriends or girlfriends and in shelters, all within a few months or years. Length of stay in current living situations varied from a few days to several years, but most  youth had lived in their current setting for 12 months or less, suggesting the fluidity of their circumstances. Somewhat surprisingly, numbers of homeless and unstably housed adolescents were evenly distributed across grades. Sixteen percent had dropped out and 14% had graduated. Overall, unstably housed teens were slightly more likely to be male than female — 52% versus 44%, with 2% reported to be transgender (2% did not report). Twenty-one percent of reported youth were white; 42% were Hispanic and 18% were African American.

Rates of homeless and unstably housed youth in this study substantially correspond with those reported in Estimation Projects conducted in Vermont and Massachusetts high schools in the early 2000s.

Discussion

To find these young people, we have to look for them. Communities and schools will only look if they believe they exist; this study aims to persuade them that they do.

Each federal agency funding services to homeless individuals defines homelessness slightly differently. The Department of Housing and Urban Development currently provides the most expansive definition. The majority of adolescents identified in the Estimation Project meet HUD’s definition of homelessness, which explicitly includes youth are doubled up with friends or relatives due to economic hardship or domestic violence; who have had two or more moves in the past 60 days; who live in shelters or transitional living programs; or who will be displaced from their nighttime residence within two weeks.

Estimation Project findings clearly demonstrate that high schools have large transient/homeless student populations — larger than they, or local and state social service providers — generally realize. While many students reported as homeless or transient through the peer surveys are probably not in need of special services, many others almost certainly do need counseling and referral, tutoring, assistance with housing, medical care and transportation.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act requires all public schools to help homeless students enroll and succeed in school. To fund these services, the Department of Education makes formula grants to states that they then distribute to schools in particular need of support. However, while McKinney-Vento clearly recognizes the exceptional needs of homeless students, most schools make only modest efforts on their behalf, either because they believe homelessness doesn’t exist among their students, or because they have limited capacity to help such students.

One goal of the Homeless Youth Estimation Project is to raise awareness among high schools and allied youth service providers about the existence of large numbers of unstably housed youth who otherwise would never come to their attention. Since housing instability itself (and the corresponding lack of adult guidance and supervision that it implies) is correlated to negative outcomes for young people, identifying youth sliding toward homelessness and intervening early is critical.

For more information about the Homeless Youth Estimation Project, including conducting the Project in your community, contact Melanie Wilson.