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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change

Ending Youth Homelessness with Equitable Strategies

An episode of the “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Matthew Morton shares research and discusses equitable strategies for ending youth homelessness with host Regina Cannon.

July 6, 2020

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Erika Simon, Producer: [00:00:01] Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. Before we get started with our new episode, we want to acknowledge that as our communities respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, this is a difficult time for everyone, especially for people who are marginalized and those providing health and human services. We are deeply thankful to all the health and human service providers and community leaders who are working tirelessly to keep people safe and well and to help folks who are sick to recover. We appreciate you beyond measure.

Erika: [00:00:33] We are sharing some COVID-19 related resources for supporting people experiencing challenges with substance use, mental health, recovery, homelessness, and housing on our webpage at c4innovates.com/news and on our social media channels on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Please email us at info@c4innovates.com if we can support you or your programs in any way. All of us at C4 wish health and strength to you, your families and friends, and the people you work with.

Regina Cannon, Host: [1:10] Hello and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m Regina Cannon, your host. Our topic today, ending youth homelessness and the role of equity. What does the research say about it? It’s not often that we get to talk about equity and how both quantitative and qualitative research illuminates the inequities that we see and can guide us to better solutions. So we’re so delighted to be having this conversation today.

Regina: [1:35] Our guest is Dr. Matthew Morton. Dr. Morton is a research fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, and he’s calling in from Manhattan today. Matt, thank you so much for being a part of the conversation.

Dr. Matthew Morton, Guest: [1:48] It’s my pleasure. Thanks, Regina.

Regina: [1:49] So Matt, tell me about the youth homelessness research you’ve been doing at Chapin Hall, especially the Voices of Youth Count. What is it all about?

Matt: [1:57] Sure. So we’ve spent the last five years at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago really diving deep into youth homelessness. We looked around nationally, and there really wasn’t a national research agenda on the issue. There are individual researchers and localities working on youth homelessness and doing really good work, but as a nation, we lack good rigorous research to produce evidence around basic questions, like how many youth experience homelessness? What are their characteristics and their experiences? How do they engage with services? And what do we know about the programs and interventions that are currently being offered to those young people?

Matt: [2:41] In fact, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, the main piece of legislation addressing youth homelessness at the federal level, called for this national research. So Chapin Hall ended up putting forward a commitment from some of its own endowment and partnered with a number of family foundations. And eventually, Congress appropriated funds, and we partnered with federal agencies like HUD, and HHS, and USICH, and the Department of Education on building up a public-private partnership. And that public-private partnership is called Voices of Youth Count.

Matt: [3:17] And Voices of Youth Count is the most comprehensive, national research initiative to date focused specifically on youth and young adult homelessness in the United States. And it included a range of components. It involved a national survey to estimate prevalence and incidence of youth homelessness, but it also included qualitative research into young people’s experiences and how they came into homelessness, as well as surveys of service providers, youth point-in-time counts, and brief surveys of young people in 22 partner counties across the country, and a systematic evidence review of what we know about programs and practices serving the population.

Regina: [4:00] Matt, that’s an incredibly comprehensive research agenda that you have there. Could you share with us some of the highlights of the research that you’re doing? What kinds of things do you think would surprise people to know about youth homelessness?

Matt: [4:14] Well, one of the first things that we found with the national survey in particular was that youth and young adult homelessness is surprisingly common and prevalent among our nation’s young people. In fact, we found with the first nationally representative survey of about 25,000 people across the country that about one in 30 adolescent minors, ages 13 to 17, experienced some form of homelessness over the course of a one-year period.

Matt: [4:49] And when we look at young adults, the prevalence rate climbs even higher. About one in 10 young adults experience some form of homelessness within a year. About half of those experiences were couch surfing, without a safe and stable living arrangement, and I think that underscores the hiddenness of homelessness experiences among young people, which are often not the types of homelessness that many people think of in the public. When we think of people in sleeping bags on city street corners, a lot of the homelessness was much more hidden and fluid across different sleeping arrangements over time.

Matt: [5:25] And related to that, we’re also able to look at the issue spatially. And we found that youth homelessness was statistically equal in terms of prevalence rates between urban and rural communities. Now, there are more youth experiencing homelessness in urban communities because there are more human beings, period, in urban places. But as a share of the population, the challenge is just as prevalent in rural communities.

Matt: [5:50] So this is not an East Coast, West Coast problem. It’s not an inner city problem. It really is a national challenge, the degree to which young people today are experiencing homelessness and housing instability in the context of rapidly increasing housing prices, high student debt, and a range of other factors that are driving many young people into homelessness and housing instability.

Matt: [6:14] We also found that youth homelessness has roots in significant structural inequities.

Regina: [6:20] What did you find out about structural inequities?

Matt: [6:23] We found in particular youth of color and LGBTQ young people had much higher rates of homelessness than youth who identified as white, cisgender, and heterosexual. And, in fact, young people who identified as both Black or Brown and LGBTQ had the highest rates of homelessness. So that intersectionality is really important and something we really haven’t talked enough about in the past as a field. And, for example, a Black identifying young person who also identified as LGBTQ had over four times the risk of homelessness as a youth who identified as White, cisgender, and heterosexual. So this research has provided a national basis for fully appreciating why we need to lead with racial and LGBTQ equity if we really want to prevent and end youth homelessness.

Matt: [7:20] The third thing that I think was quite striking was the extent to which family adversity was so central in young people’s pathways into homelessness. And I think this is something that is a little bit unique from what we see with older adult homelessness, which might be more driven by an immediate housing crisis, like an eviction. In the case of young people, the loss of housing is very much rooted in a broader sense of loss, loss of family, loss of stability for many young people entering child welfare or other systems, and then loss of their family unit and community connections for youth moving from one school to the next because of housing instability. It meant the loss of that sense of community. So we really came to understand through the qualitative research how common the sense of loss is among young people who come into homelessness and how connected that is with their experiences.

Regina: [8:22] Thank you. Thank you for that. Matt, when we talk about youth homelessness, it seems so broad, and we want to make sure that we’re having very targeted strategies. Are there any specific populations that you still want to work with other than just folks of color? That’s such a broad and nebulous term. What are the other populations among our youth that you’d like to work with?

Matt: [8:43] Yeah, thanks for asking that, Regina. This is a really important question because we often look at issues like racial equity a little too simplistically, and of course, youth of color comprise themselves so many different subpopulations and with so many different and complex and multiple identities. And it’s really important for us to look underneath the hood and engage in better research around different subpopulations. For example, in The Journal of Adolescent Health, we published our overall prevalence results, showing higher rates of homelessness among youth of color.

Matt: [9:24] But in a separate journal article with The Journal of Primary Prevention, we published a paper looking specifically at prevalence and correlates of homelessness among American Indian and Alaska Native young people. And we did that because this population often becomes a footnote on conversations around racial equity, but we felt it deserved a more prominent conversation and a paper on that particular topic, because there’s so little literature on American Indian/Alaska Native youth and their experiences of homelessness in the United States.

Matt: [00:10:01] And we found that they actually had the highest rates of prevalence among all of the measured racial and ethnic groups that we looked at. And there are a few things that are particularly important about that population. One is that not only were their rates very high, but we often assume that American Indian/Alaska Native young people are concentrated into tribal lands or in rural communities. And while there are important concentrations of the population there, the vast majority of American Indian/Alaska Native youth live in urban communities, in fact, and that includes youth experiencing homelessness in urban and suburban counties.

Matt: [00:10:45] And very little federal policy focuses on young people who are dispersed in those types of communities. So I think we need much more research and much more collaboration with American Indian/Alaska Native communities around working with this population and putting in better systems and services that are culturally effective for this population and, really, the greatest diversity of populations within American Indian/Alaska Native youth across the country, and having tailored strategies for rural and urban communities and suburban communities alike.

Matt: [00:11:25] And also, our research highlighted how sometimes different approaches or different methods can tell us different stories, and those stories can be really important. So for example, if we look at homelessness systems data or point-in-time count data across the country that’s already collected, Hispanic young people come up as under represented among those experiencing homelessness as a share of their population. But when we conducted a nationally representative survey, we found that Hispanic youth actually had a higher rate of homelessness compared to their share of the population overall.

Matt: [00:12:03] And that might show the degree to which this population is especially hidden in its homelessness experiences. These experiences might be more in the form of doubling up in couch surfing, for instance, and relying on family networks. And this is what we’ve also seen with some of the educational data. And it could reflect increased tension and lack of trust in engaging with public systems and shelters, so they’re not showing up as much in those administrative data.

Matt: [00:12:35] So it’s really important that we build alliances and specific research agendas around different racial and ethnic populations of young people, so that we can get a fuller picture to inform policy action.

Regina: [12:49] It’s so wonderful to hear that you all are paying such attention to the nuances and the complexities of ending youth homelessness, making sure that you give attention to all of the different populations, whether they be urban or suburban, and what populations they’re coming from.

Regina: [00:13:06] Matt, I’m curious, given the array of research that you’ve done on the intersectionality, looking at things like social isolation with the young people, how do you shape that into a policy agenda as we move toward very practical solutions for our young people?

Matt: [00:13:23] We think that the research broadly points to a few key directions. First of all, we’ve got to move from programs to systems. We have, across the nation, a number of organizations running really important programs for youth experiencing homelessness. At the same time, when you look at the magnitude, the full prevalence of youth homelessness across the country, and we come to understand the degree to which youth experiencing homelessness are coming into homelessness because of the failure of multiple public systems, both to provide the right sets of support and services to youth and to coordinate with each other, it’s really clear that we need a systems level response to youth homelessness that goes above and beyond particular programs or shelters or housing intervention.

Matt: [00:14:14] And that means schools, behavioral health systems, juvenile criminal justice systems, and housing systems, among others, all working much more coherently together to deliver a stronger continuum of services for young people, and to identify young people who are at risk for homelessness and housing instability before they ever experience that trauma and adversity in the first place, and making sure they’re connected with the right supports and services.

Matt: [00:14:41] Relatedly, that calls for a much greater focus on prevention. We tend to have a fairly crisis response-oriented approach to dealing with homelessness in general, including youth homelessness, but our qualitative work really highlights opportunities for going more upstream. So, for example, we’re working with some school systems to screen for the youth at risk for homelessness, so that we can provide counseling and casework for students and their families earlier on to disrupt pathways into homelessness.

Matt: [00:15:12] The same can be done in juvenile justice systems for young people exiting detention. The same can be done with greater resources and supports around youth exiting child welfare or youth who are exiting behavioral health systems like inpatient treatment. And by and large, that’s just not happening. And so, we’ve got a lot of missed opportunities with young people coming into homelessness in ways that are avoidable if systems are working together and thinking at the systems level. So I think that’s the one thing that’s really quite clear.

Matt: [00:15:43] The other is centering youth and young adults with lived experience in that work. We learned a lot across the 22 partner counties from young people directly, and youth were really co-leads in improving point-in-time counts around young people’s needs. We could not have improved our counts and methods of youth experiencing homelessness without young people being leaders in that process. They just have that expertise that nobody else does. And by centering young people with lived experience and collaborating authentically with them, paying them, and building up their skills and supports to be able to engage meaningfully in the processes that affect their lives, we can build better system responses around youth experiencing homelessness.

Matt: [00:16:31] And then, the third thing that is really critical is, again, tackling inequities related to race and LGBTQ identity. The disproportionalities we see related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity mirror the disproportionalities that we see in other public systems, even foster care, youth in juvenile detention, youth in in-patient behavioral health systems. And so, if we are screening for youth experiencing homelessness earlier, and we’re paying a lot of attention to making sure systems are more equitable and anti-racist earlier on, we can prevent more of those inequities from showing up in the homelessness system.

Matt: [00:17:20] But that also doesn’t excuse the homelessness system itself. When we looked at administrative data across 16 continuums of care, 16 communities across the country, we also found that youth of color had, on average, experienced longer wait times for housing services and resources and to exit the homelessness system, and they were less likely to have a self-resolve exit or a family exit without housing resources. And among the youth who did have an exit from the homelessness system back with their family, youth of color had less success with those types of exits.

Matt: [00:17:59] So even within homelessness systems, if we’re analyzing our data carefully, it will point to ways in which we can build more equitable systems and approaches. And we have to look really closely at our data to do that. A lot of communities aren’t yet really disaggregating their data by race and ethnicity and having meaningful conversations with people with lived experience to interpret those data. And I think it’s not that there’s one prescriptive solution.

Matt: [00:18:29] For example, communities might have similar housing rates, as we often see with something like rapid rehousing or supportive housing with youth of color and young people who identify as white, but if the family exits are less successful, that points to a specific area of needing additional support around improving equitable outcomes. For instance, in this case, it might be that families of youth of color are less resourced, and they themselves are suffering from more structural racism and systemic biases and need additional supports for those family exits to work well for the families and for that young person. And until communities are really looking at and grappling with their data around race and ethnicity and having meaningful conversations with people of color with lived experience, those patterns of inequity will continue.

Regina: [00:19:23] And Matt, you’ve highlighted some really important areas, the importance of looking at our data carefully so that we don’t miss those opportunities or continue to miss those opportunities at both the system level, as well as the local homeless response systems. And I’m curious, what are you hearing across the nation? Are systems like the foster care system, like the juvenile justice system, are they willing partners to work with you to end youth homelessness going back upstream? Are you hearing from partners within our homeless response system that they’re willing to make sure that they’re listening to our youth that are speaking to them, that are giving them the solutions, especially our youth of color and those that are in the LGBTQ community?

Matt: [00:20:08] As we bring our research and our evidence across the country and in deeper conversations with community, some systems are always more responsive than others. And it’s been interesting to see how different communities and different systems within communities grapple with the evidence. Overall though, we are seeing a lot of positive responsiveness to the evidence. And a lot of times, it’s not that individuals or decision makers are overtly racist, it’s that we’re producing racist outcomes by preserving a status quo. And when we have evidence, sometimes even simple statistics, it helps shed light on our blind spots. And that’s where research can be so powerful. Research is not powerful when it just underscores things that we already know. Our research sometimes does that too, and that can be important.

Matt: [00:21:08] But research is most effective or most disruptive when it gets us to think a little bit differently, or it helps highlight things that aren’t currently on our front burner. And racial equity is often one of those things. And even youth homelessness in general, which is often an invisible challenge in our community, is one of those things that data helps make more visible for communities to make decisions around.

Matt: [00:21:37] So when we’ve shown, for instance, even basic statistics, like the findings from our 22 county surveys, that about 46% of youth experiencing homelessness on a given night had been in juvenile detention, prison, or jail. That’s nearly half of youth experiencing homelessness having been in some form of incarceration. That has really opened the eyes of local community leaders working on the issue of youth homelessness. And they might look around the table and say, “Huh. We don’t have anybody from the legal system here or law enforcement at the table.” And even something as simple as that is a type of reaction that we think is helpful, and it’s an important first start for communities to look at the data and ask whether they’ve got the right people sitting with them at the table.

Matt: [00:22:29] Or whether when they look at their HMIS, Homelessness Management Information System, on a regular basis, whether they’re disaggregating results by race and ethnicity, not only in terms of who comes into the system, but also what young people’s exits to look like, how successful those exits are, and which young people sustainably exit homelessness. When you’re capturing and disaggregating those different entry points in the system by race and ethnicity, it helps promote some different conversations than were happening before. So we’re seeing that responsiveness.

Matt: [00:23:07] The other area that we’ve seen a good amount of responsiveness around is with schools. And schools are really important for engagement and prevention of youth homelessness because they’re the system that is the most common denominator for all young people, when you think about it. By the time young people come into something like juvenile justice, or foster care, or behavioral health systems, they have already reached a point of crisis, things have already gone wrong, and they have already been subject to the deeper implications of systemic and structural racism. When we talk about young people in schools, it’s a more universal entry point for working with young people and for identifying young people earlier in their trajectories into difficulties.

Regina: [00:24:00] So tell me about The Upstream Project and how does it involve screening?

Matt: [00:24:05] So we are now working on a project called The Upstream Project with three communities. We’re in the early stages of preparing it. And it’s modeled after a program in Australia, which involves schools working together with community-based organizations. And the schools facilitate a universal screening survey, a short survey, about 15 or 20 minutes long, based in research, which includes risk factors for homelessness and early school leaving, and screens for current homelessness. And based on that screening data, the school, with Chapin Hall’s help, can identify students and families who are at risk for homelessness and school dropout before it occurs.

Matt: [00:24:49] And then working with the community-based partners can provide different degrees of casework, and counseling, and linkages to community support as needed for the student and the family to address homelessness before it occurs or to prevent school dropout. And we’re seeing a good amount of enthusiasm around that. I think it often leverages resources schools already have in place, but helps build a prevention framework around those and some additional processes and systems. And we’re seeing a lot of interest in that approach, and we’ll be testing it out for its effectiveness in looking at equity as a key element of how we assess effectiveness and the implementation of the program.

Regina: [00:25:33] Matt, what you’ve laid out for us today is truly the disruptive power of research, and we’re so, so appreciative to Chapin Hall for doing this work. I have one final question for you. There’s a lot of energy right now around ending youth homelessness, YHDP, the Grand Challenge, other initiatives. How do we make sure that this work continues past the initiatives and that we keep the focus on equity as Chapin Hall is doing?

Matt: [00:26:03] Well, we can’t end youth homelessness in the dark. We really need, as a field, as a movement, to remain committed to centering more and better research and evidence, and more and better authentic collaboration with youth with lived experience and expertise. I think those two components are really critical to maintaining and improving the national agenda around ending youth homelessness and local agendas.

Matt: [00:26:35] So at the local level, that means continuing to work on integrating administrative data from different systems and services around youth experiencing homelessness and working to capture better data on youth outcomes. And Chapin Hall partnered with Youth Collaboratory on identifying common, valid, reliable, and easy-to-use measures on different types of outcomes for youth experiencing homelessness, and we produced a report and a resource called Measuring Up. So I really encourage communities to be thinking about how to use those outcome measures so that communities can talk across programs and services and across communities around a common set of core measures and reflect on those data and around equity with respect to those outcomes.

Matt: [00:27:29] At the national level, there are a couple of things that we really need. We need to continue to collect, every couple of years, national estimates on the prevalence and incidence of youth homelessness and the disproportionalities. That’s really important that we have that trend data. It’s impossible to end youth homelessness if we don’t have a metric for tracking whether we’ve done it and for whom we’re making more or less progress. So, continuing national estimates over time is a commitment that we see in other fields, from employment to justice to health and domestic violence. And we just don’t have that kind of trend data on prevalence with respect to youth homelessness over time and we need that.

Matt: [00:28:13] But it also means more commitment to evaluating the programs and practices that we implement with youth experiencing homelessness more rigorously. Our evidence review showed very little rigorous evaluation of core housing and shelter programs, for example, that many communities are rely on for this population and very little research on prevention. So we are all using models and practices that people have strong feelings about, but that we have not really subjected to the kind of research and evaluation that tells us what’s working best and for whom and under what circumstances. And so, again, we can’t end youth homelessness in the dark. We really need the commitment, the resources, and the humility to subject our efforts to better evaluation and tracking with better data.

Regina: [00:29:08] Matt, thank you and Chapin Hall for changing the conversation around ending youth homelessness. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you today.

Matt: [00:29:18] My pleasure. Thanks so much, Regina.

Regina: [00:29:20] And to our listeners, thank you for joining in on Changing the Conversation.

Erika: [00:29:24] Visit c4innovates.com, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erica Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlin. Our hosts are Jeff Olivet, Kristen Paquette, and Regina Cannon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

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