What comes to mind when you think of a “homeless person”? Chances are, you’ll picture an adult, probably male, dirty, likely with some health conditions, including a mental illness. Few of us would immediately recall homeless individuals as family members, neighbors, co-workers and other loved ones. Fewer still are likely aware of how many youths (both minors and young adults) experience homelessness annually.
Homeless youth is a population who can become invisible to us in many ways. These youth may still be in school, may go to work, and interact with many of our public and private systems, yet not have a reliable and safe place to sleep, eat, do homework and even build relationships.
Youth experiencing homelessness is, in fact, far more prevalent than many people realize, as the Voices of Youth Count research briefs have illustrated. Approximately 1 in 10 young adults (18-25) and 1 in 30 youth (13-17) experience homelessness over the course of a year. That’s over 4 million individuals.
When I worked for the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health, we ran programs specifically targeting homeless youth. The stories of lives changed from supportive care is still motivating! My role at the County focused primarily on data. At SAS, I have continued to explore ways data can support whole person care, which includes the effects of homelessness on health.
I see three primary ways data can be powerful in helping homeless youth:
Data raises awareness
Without good data, it’s hard to make interventions. Health inequities is a good example of this: If we don’t know where the problem is, we can’t change our policies and programs.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled a range of data points about youth homelessness in the United States and information on related policy efforts. This is wonderful information, and I appreciate how they connect basic data with policy.
At the same time, this kind of data can be complicated to compile. Information about youth experiencing homelessness can be siloed, which inhibits a larger perspective, like a regional, statewide, or even national view. We also know there are many intersections with other public and private systems, including education, foster care, criminal justice, social services, workforce support and healthcare. Each system has a distinct perspective and data point.
What would happen if we were able to have a continuous whole person perspective of youth experiencing homelessness? How might that affect public awareness and, by extension, public policy to help homeless youth?
Data informs context and strengths
While chronic health conditions are often present with homeless youth, this is also an issue with family members, leading to family homelessness. First off, this is an important example of not looking at people at just individuals, but as part of a bigger system. That fundamentally requires a more integrative perspective.
Further, homeless youth experience higher rates of other social factors, such as interactions with foster care, criminal justice, and educational discipline (e.g., suspensions). Add on top of that other socio-economic contexts, including racial disparities and more youth from the LGBTQ+ communities.
Just as I talked about the evaluation of suffering in general, having a more whole person perspective on homelessness is critical in understanding the true context of what may be contributing to homelessness… as well as what will help with it.
It is easy to focus on all the negative outcomes and risk factors of homelessness in youth. What happens when we can start seeing folks experiencing homelessness as loved and meaningful members of our communities? Data that provides more holistic perspectives, including strengths, could help shift that narratives and even combat stigma and discrimination.
In my role at San Bernardino County, I helped oversee and design program evaluation, including using tools, like the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths (CANS), to assess more holistic impacts of acute programs serving homeless youth. Broadening out our assessment beyond basic negative outcomes to include metrics like resilience, optimism, and social support not only reinforces good interventions, but also helps us to see the youth experiencing homelessness as youth worthy of investment.
Data empowers prevention and early intervention
Finally, homelessness is rarely a sudden event. In most cases, youth and their families experiencing homelessness have encountered one or more of our community systems before becoming homeless. I’ve talked before about using more whole person data to proactively identify people high-risk people across public (especially health) systems.
This approach can lead to early identification of people at risk of homelessness. If we can identify youth and family in an early encounter with health, social services, foster care or even the criminal justice system, could we better prevent homelessness in the first place? Some people will still experience homelessness, but could this same approach also help us better identify what kinds of interventions could reduce the duration of homelessness and prevent it from recurring?
With whole person data, we can continue to refine our interventions and raise more awareness of what best helps youth experiencing homelessness. For instance, research has recognized the value of trauma-informed care with this population. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a variety of information that can empower anyone to better help homeless youth.
In honor of National Homeless Youth Awareness Month and recognizing the importance of homelessness in general, I encourage you to explore some of these resources and read at least one to become more aware of the reality of the experience of homeless youth. That’s the first step in moving us forward.